Just as a good book cover does for a piece of fiction, a catchy wine label draws people in and makes them consider buying it — just look at the success of Yellow Tail. It works on the high end, too: for decades Bordeaux’s Chateau Mouton Rothschild has hired famous international artists to do its labels, from Picasso to Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Having real art on the label adds considerably to the cachet — not that this famous first-growth Bordeaux needs it.
Ultimately, though, the words on the label are way more important than any image, be it a cute kangaroo or a Francis Bacon painting. If you know how to read a label, you’ll be better at picking wines — and at appreciating them. This is part two of an alphabetical guide to wine labels. (To read part 1, about everything from "alcohol" to "old vines," click here.)
Producer: The people who made the wine. Usually printed in the biggest type, but not always. Sometimes wine has a brand like any other product and the company that made it is listed smaller, or not at all. For example, Washington State’s Columbia Crest and Snoqualmie are two brands of Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Quality ratings: Some countries — notably Italy, France, and Germany — have governmentally sanctioned rankings of quality that appear on labels, and it’s worth looking into what these levels mean if you frequently buy wine from that country. But these aren’t always as useful as you’d hope: In Germany, “kabinett” is the lowest rung of quality, but that’s only because in their system, ripeness and sugar content are prized above all. A Kabinett-designated Riesling might be a very serious wine that just happens to be dry. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest rank in Italy, but because of the rules about which grapes can be grown in certain places, some of the country’s best wines (notably many of the “Super Tuscans) have the lowest ranking: ”vino di tavola,” or table wine.
Reserve: This means a wine has been specially treated in some way — frequently aged in wood for a longer period than the producer’s other wines. But it has no legal meaning except in certain countries, including Spain. There, “reserva” means aged for two years before release, one of them in oak; “gran reserva” means it was aged for three years, two in oak.
Sulfites: These chemical compounds occur naturally in all wines, both red and white, but most wineries also add them at bottling, as a preservative, in the form of sulfur dioxide. They’re a good thing — they allow wines to age properly in the bottle. Without them, wines would become undrinkable within months or a year. But for a wine to be called organic by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), it can’t have any added sulfites, so you often see the term “organically grown,” meaning the grapes, instead of “organic,” which would apply to the wine itself. Some people are allergic to sulfites, but keep in mind that the average salad has more sulfites than a glass of wine.
Vintage: The year the grapes were harvested (or at least 95 percent of them, anyway). As I’ve said in this space before, this is perhaps the least important thing for beginners to worry about. Many Champagnes and other sparkling wines are designated “NV,” or non-vintage, meaning that that grapes were harvested in different years.
Volume: The bottle has to state the volume of its contents somewhere (sometimes it’s molded into the glass). The standard is 750 ml. Half-bottles, at 375 ml, are common for dessert wines, but can also be found for some regular table wines. “Magnums” contain the volume of two regular bottles. Other specially sized bottles have great names like Jeroboam (six standard bottles) and Methuselah (eight), and range all the way up to Nebuchadnezzar, which is the size of 20 regular ones.
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.