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Wine Labels - how to make sense of them

Wine labels range from the sublime, giving you accurate and useful information, to the ridiculous - a waste of good ink. But if you know how to read them you can usually glean something from them. In this series we will get to the bottom of the jargon but more importantly a new way to interpret the label

The three parts are:

Give me the BIG picture please

The label is divided into two key areas - front and back! On the front you will usually find out who produced the wine, the country of origin, bottle size and alcohol content. If it's a New World wine you will almost certainly be told what the grape variety or blend is. With Old World wines this practice is less common, with the wine region taking pride of place. While the legal information is factual, interpreting it is not as obvious as it should be and the same terms can mean different things in different countries.

On the back label there is information that is used to help sell the wine. This is often based on the winemakers description of the wine, but can include food matching and serving temperature. Some descriptions are a bit enthusiastic but should point to the underlying style of the wine.

Reading the label

Old World labels are much more complicated to read than New World. With European wines the region or place name is key, e.g. Chablis, Chianti, Rioja, and not the grape variety. In France this is true for most Appellation Controlé wines although the law has changed recently to allow the grape variety to be mentioned on the front label. The two main exceptions are in Alsace, where the grape variety is featured prominently and in the South of France where Vin de Pays wines have adopted a more modern approach to labelling to compete with the New World. Germany is also an exception, where the grape variety does appear quite prominently. There are also a range of terms for German wines indicating the level of sweetness, e.g Spatlese, meaning 'late harvest' tells you the wine is going to be a sweetish style. In Spain there are 3 terms to look out for to do with ageing (& not necessarily quality). Crianza means the wine has to have aged for 2 years, Reserva for 3 and Gran Reserva for a minimum of 5 years. The ageing has to take place both in the barrel and the bottle before it can be released. You'll pay the most for the oldest, a Gran Reserva. This terms is not to be confused with the New World term 'Reserve' which has nothing to do with the age of the wine but is used to identify a winemaker's premium quality range of wines.

In the New World wine labels are more straightforward. The emphasis is on the brand or producer and the grape variety or blend. The graphics are modern & eyecatching to appeal to the everyday drinker. The south of France and Germany are following suit to make up lost ground. However regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy still persist with very traditional labelling information and design and this is unlikely to change in the forseeable future.

Most wines will indicate the vintage on the front label, however European table wines (e.g. vin de table, vino da tavola, vino de mesa, tafelwein) aren't allowed to. Nor can they mention the grape variety, instead describing the style of wine, e.g French Dry White Wine.

On all bottles, regardless of where in the world, there will be the following information: country of origin, name & address of the producer/importer, volume of liquid in the bottle and alcoholic strength (ABV). The back label may tell you more about the region, the grape variety or blend and the winemaker's tasting notes.

Sparkling wines need to indicate either the vintage (the year bottled) or NV for Non Vintage wines. The term Brut means dry and is widely used, Demi-Sec means slightly sweet (medium dry). Blanc de Blancs means the Champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and Blanc de Noirs means its made from red grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). You'll also see the term 'Champagne Method' or 'Methode Traditionnelle' on sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region but to the same method as Champagne.

The winemaker's description

On the back label you will often find a tasting note for the wine. These can be quite comprehensive and technical (written by the winemaker) or over enthusiastic and flowery (written by the marketing department!). As well as a tasting note there may be a suggestion for serving with food. Sometimes there will be information on the region and the winery. Use the back label as a guide in most cases to the general style of wine and to increase your knowledge of a particular grape or region.

A winemaker's description of the wine will normally start by telling you a bit about how the wine was made and whether it has 'seen oak'. Oak barrels are either French or American and can be use during fermentation or simply for ageing the wine. They will then describe the 'nose' (aromas), the palate (how it tastes) and finish (in other words the quality). When describing how a wine tastes sweetness, acidity, tannins, body, fruit intensity & character, alchohol and length are all considered but may not all be covered in a short tasting note.

When you're choosing wine off the shelf, it is easy to judge wines by their labelling but often it's only the front label that people look at. The back label can be informative and help you make the best choice, particularly for more premium quality wines where you'd expect to see most information. Premium New World wines are more likely to include winemaker's notes than their Old World counterparts.