Wine labels can be intimidating and seem like they’re designed to confuse those who don’t know the meaning of them. As a whole they’re not straight forward but when separated into their individual countries and regions, we can see a method to all of the madness. Here are some quick tips to help decipher the label.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. Every label must contain the alcohol levels and allergen and since ALL wines contain sulphites, the allergens are the same on every bottle.
New world wines are designed to be clear and approachable. Each label has a producer, grape and region. Easy for even the philistines among us.
The French, as always, have their own way of doing things. For them, the region is the most important thing and labels reflect that. The quality of the wines tends to go hand in hand with how specific the region is on the label. When we see “Chateau” or “Domaine” we know who made it but where the grapes are sourced comes from the next line. For example, Medoc, Haut-Medoc and Margeaux are all Bordeaux wines and provide the insight to what’s in the bottle. Medoc tells us that the grapes are sourced from all over the area, Haut-Medoc is a smaller area within the Medoc and Margeaux is the village within.
Above table wine, the French rarely denote grape on the label. Maybe they think you should already know it but for whatever reason that’s how it’s done. For example, Sancerre and Chablis are villages and (they think) we should know that the grapes are Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay respectively.
In Spain, life is a little bit easier. For the most part, the Spanish are clear. The main writing on the label that jumps out will give us the region (Rioja or Ribera del Duero) and beneath that the grapes will be shown. After that, it’s just a matter of how much aging the wines go through before they are bottled. In order of least to most aging their terms are “Joven”, “Crianza”, “Reserva”, and “Gran Reserva”.
The Italians have their own way of doing things and unfortunately there’s only so much that I can help with. There are no specific rules for all Italian wines. Some are named after grapes, others are named after place and some are just a nice term that the producer dreamt up! One thing that catches people out is the likes of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. When written like that it’s always grape from place. Montepulciano (grape) d’(from) Abruzzo(place).
While, of course, there are exceptions and a whole host of rules that can’t be covered in a short blog, this is certainly enough to help you pick a wine off a shelf or hold your own during dinner party conversation.
Kind regards and drink up!