Faced with a row of bottles you’ve never seen before, how do you choose? By the label, of course—we all do, even if we don’t admit it. Why else would wineries spend so much time and money on design and eye-catching graphics?
The design is the most noticeable element, of course, but the least helpful. To figure out what’s inside the bottle, you’ve got to read the fine print, the gothic script, the Braille bumps, or whatever the winery used to get across the essential information. (There are Braille wine labels, actually: Michel Chapoutier labels his wines from France’s Rhone Valley in both script and Braille.) After all, the purpose of the label is to tell you what’s inside.
The thing is, when you read a wine label, you’ve got to know what to look for, and what to ignore. Just like you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a wine by its label. But you can up your chances of finding the kind of wine you’re looking for.
There are all sorts of different styles of wine labels: Some are minimalist, some are crowded with information; some sport a grape variety, some don’t. Every wine bottle sold commercially in the United States, however, bears two labels: the front label (the flashier one, with the name of the wine) and the back label (where the fine print and government warning resides).
Some wine bottles may sport a nutritional label, too: the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) declared it legal to include calorie, carbohydrate, and nutrition content on alcoholic beverages in April 2004. Wines, beers, and liquors can also claim “low carbohydrate” status if they contain less than seven grams of carbohydrates per 5-ounce serving, but carbs were never much of a worry in savory alcohols, anyway: Liquors like vodka have negligible amounts of carbohydrates, while dry wines run from 1 to 2.5 grams per 5-ounce glass. Only some very sweet wines run over seven. On the other hand, calorie counters might want to know that most dry wines run 20 to 30 calories an ounce, and dessert wines can pack in up to 50.
The front label is your main concern. Although front labels vary widely, there are a few things you’ll find somewhere on every bottle of wine that comes into the United States. (When in the country of origin, all bets are off.) They are …
Whose wine it is.
- Where it’s grown.
- What sort of wine it is (e.g., “Sparkling,” “Red Table Wine,” etc.).
- How much wine is in the bottle.
- Percent of alcohol.
That’s all that’s strictly necessary. In addition, the label might offer helpful information such as …
The grape variety or varieties.
- The vintage year.
- Where it was bottled.
- A designation of quality.
- The name of a vineyard.
- A designation of style.
- A designation of ripeness.
Wine labels that include the name of the grape or grapes contained within the bottle are called varietal labels; regional labels leave off the grape variety and rely instead on the name of the place the wine was grown to identify the sort of wine in the bottle.