To some people, a wine label is a mysterious rune, something to stare at and fret over that will ultimately remain elusive. What’s up with sulfites? Who cares if it’s 13.8 or 16 percent alcohol? And why doesn’t this Italian red say what grapes are inside?
Here’s Part 1 of an alphabetical guide to a few things a label tells you, and some of the things it doesn’t.
Alcohol: The U.S. government requires that winemakers put a wine's alcohol content on the label, and it sets high and low limits on it (though some variation from the printed amount is allowed). Generally table wines will fall between 10 and 15 percent, with red wines on the higher end of that spectrum; fortified wines such as Port and Sherry can go up to 20 percent. When I describe a wine as “big,” I’m frequently talking about the alcohol content — a matter of taste which a label can help you figure out. Anything under 10 percent means the wine is likely somewhat sweet; since winemaking is the process of converting natural sugars to alcohol, a number that low means there may be residual sugar.
Appellation: This is a governmentally approved area for growing wine. Every country, state, and region has numerous rules about what can be put in a bottle bearing a particular place name. If a bottle says Sonoma County, for example, 75 percent of the grapes must come from the county. If it says Russian River Valley (that’s an official American Viticultural Appellation, the government’s way of recognizing special wine districts), then 85 percent of the grapes have to call that area home. Generally, the more specific the place name on a label — they can range from entire states right down to single vineyards — the more serious the wine is. If you want to get to know European wines, the first thing you should familiarize yourself with are the well-established appellations — Cotes-du-Rhone in France, Mosel in Germany, Brunello di Montalcino in Italy, for example — which are often listed in the biggest type on the label and are each known for a certain style.
Brut: This familiar designation, which graces most Champagnes, signifies that a wine is dry. Estate-bottled: When you see this phrase or a version of it on a wine — in France it’s “mise en bouteille au chateau — it means that the grapes used to make it have come from the winery’s own vineyards. This distinguishes the bottle from the many wines on the market that use grapes purchased from various sources and combined.
Grape variety: New World wines — those not from Europe — tend to tout this above all other things, while Old World ones often omit it all together. Surprising rules abound: Even when an American wine is listed as a Cabernet Sauvignon, it only has to have 75 percent of that variety inside. The rest can be anything the winemaker wants. Many of the greatest wines of the world traditionally blend different grapes — red Bordeaux for example, is usually Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a couple of other varieties. And even some wines made of just of one varietal still never say it anywhere: White Burgundy is always made exclusively of Chardonnay, but you rarely see that word on a label.
Government warning: The familiar 42 words warning pregnant women and drivers about alcohol’s dangers were added to U.S. wine bottles in 1989. So far, the wine industry’s effort to tout the health benefits of wine on labels alongside the warning has been unsuccessful; its greatest foe was the late Senator Strom Thurmond.
Importer: This is listed on the labels of wines made outside the U.S., and it can be more helpful than you might realize. Some importers are very savvy about picking great wines, and you can follow the best ones just as you would patronize a good winery.
Old vines: Frequently found on French bottles (“vieilles vignes) and on bottles of California Zinfandel, among other labels, this term has no legal definition or even agreed-upon meaning. Generally it would indicate that the wine is made from vines over, say, 20 years old, but 100-year-old vines do exist in some places. Older vines are prized because they are more likely to produce concentrated, intense wines.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.