The Wine Label Mysteries: Decoding a Wine Label, Part One

Although trying to decipher the information on a wine label can sometimes feel like code-breaking, the wine label is not meant to intimidate. The label is the key to understanding what’s in the bottle – things like body, sweetness, complexity, flavor and style. Learning how to read a wine label is an important step to becoming a savvy wine consumer. This two-part article provides some handy tips on how to become your own private sommelier!

Before we dive into the information on the wine label, here are two helpful points to keep in mind:
– There is no standard practice for where information is placed on a wine label
– The information included on a label will vary depending on where the wine is produced and bottled

Because the labeling of wine varies so widely by place, and because American bottles tend to dominate most grocery store and bottle shop shelves, this article focuses only on the American wine label.

Most American wine labels provide the following two primary pieces of information that are very telling about what’s in the bottle (refer to the example wine label with corresponding numbers):

Winery or Producer

This is the company or the brand that makes the wine. For example, you may have seen wines with names like “Mondavi” or “Sutter Home” on the label. If you really like a particular bottle of wine, write down the producer’s name so you can find the same wine again or try one of their other varietals or blends.

Vintage

The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested. If a wine label lists a vintage of 2005, the grapes were picked in the fall/winter of 2005. This is not the same as the year the grapes were bottled or made available for purchase.

Why does the vintage matter? The same wine can taste very different from year to year because of fluctuations in weather and climate conditions where the grapes are grown. For example, an extremely warm growing season will produce very ripe grapes, and the resulting wines will show high alcohol levels and concentrated flavors. An extremely rainy or cool growing season may not allow grapes to reach full ripeness before picking, leading to wines that aren’t as flavorful or concentrated. While the nuances of vintage are fascinating, it’s not necessary to focus too much on wines of a certain vintage – the year generally won’t make or break the wine.

The vintage also says how old the wine is. Younger wines (0 – 2 years) will generally have vibrant and fruit forward flavors, but they may not yet exhibit a balanced profile. Balance is achieved when the acid and sugar levels in the wine exist in harmony (neither one overpowers the other). If the wine has a higher acid level, it may taste harsh and sharp (you may notice your tongue watering from the acid); if the wine has too much sugar, it may taste flabby and honeyed.

Older wines (3 years) generally exude a nice balance and have a smoother mouth feel; however, this harmony in texture may come at the price of fruit forward and vibrant flavors. Choosing an older or a younger wine is simply a matter of personal preference. I believe in drinking young wines because I value vibrant flavors over balanced textures, but try tasting the same wine from different years to learn what flavors and profiles your own palate likes best.

In the next part of this article, we’ll discuss the next four pieces of information that are a useful part of breaking the wine label code.

Enjoy!

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