Knowledge - The Problem with labels!

Can't stand Chardonnay....but love Chablis!

This is a brief introduction to the marvellous world of wine labels.

For something that provides so much information, they can often be very confusing, so what should we look for? For someone “beginning” to take a serious interest in wine there are some things to look out for on just about every wine label, although these things might not always be there!

Trying to describe wine labels to people can be a bit of a minefield, because while it could be said that there are a couple of "general conventions”, the ways that people look to sell their wines these days mean that often the “conventions” get broken or mixed up. However whatever convention is followed, every bottle of wine will have the following information on (one of) its labels and looking for them all will enable us to begin to form a picture of what the wine might be like in the bottle.


Place of origin reference

The country where the wine was produced and often the region and sub region. This is important because there are recognisable styles of wine that come from different parts of the world. A general rule of thumb (although by no means absolute) tends to be that wines from very warm places, in the so-called “New World” tend to be more fruit intensive – their grapes get lots more unshine – than those from the cooler places in Europe, the so-called Old World, whose wines tend not to be quite so intense but often more a mix of other types of flavours. Look for "Wine of South Africa", then "Wine of Origin - Stellenbosch" or "Wine of Australia", then "South Australia".... and so on....

Name of the producer

Whether it is a very large company that has produced a “bulk wine” or a small farm estate tucked off somewhere in Chile or South Africa, somewhere on the label will be the name of the producer. Being able to recognise the difference might provide a clue as to whether the wine is mass produced in large volumes or hand-crafted. (The mass produced wine might still be better…)


Vintage

This is the year the grapes were grown. (Most wines will have a vintage, some cheaper, lesser quality wine is not required to have the year noted). Knowing the vintage can be very helpful, if you are able to remember the types of summers that the wine growing regions had. Not necessarily the best guide to the quality of a wine, but it can be a help and generalisation can be useful if used carefully (e.g. 2003 was a very hot year in France and the grapes suffered..)

Alcohol level

This is usually expressed as % of the volume of liquid. This is a very useful piece of information as it gives you an idea of the “strength” of the wine, which might seem a strange thing to be concerned about. However, when you realise that a bottle of Australian Shiraz can have 15.5% alcohol and bottle of German Riesling can have 8% alcohol, it is important to be able to understand that two different bottles of wine can contain quite different amounts of alcohol! Nowadays the talk is of "Units" of alcohol. A quick way of working out the number of units in a bottle is to multiply the alcohol percentage by three quarters and round up. Therefore our Australian Shiraz will have 12 units of alcohol, while the Riesling will have only 6 units!


Something’s missing? - What about Grape Types? What about Place Names?

Look closely at the list above. Grape types, where are the grape types? This often surprises people who are beginning to learn about wine – there are wines out there, some very good wines, some of the best in the world in fact, that do not have the names of the grape types on the label. This is because wine laws in certain countries do not allow grape types on labels. Read on to discover why.


Grape type or types.

An awful lot of the wine that is sold today will have the grape type or types mentioned on the label somewhere. A good rule of thumb used to be that wines that came from outside of Europe (sometimes called “The New World”) had grape types on the front label (words like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz) and this is still very true today, but not always. Often better quality wines from these countries will go for just the producer’s name or the place where the wine was made on the front label and put the grape type on the back. It would be a safe-ish bet to say that 99% of New World Wines will have grape types somewhere on the label, front or back.

Why is this so?
You can write books on this subject but I’ll try to sum it up in a paragraph or two.. In the 1980’s when wine started to come to the UK and USA from places like Australia, New Zealand and the USA itself, these wines were named after the European counterparts that these wines resembled most. So you had things like Australian Bordeaux, Barossa Burgundy and the one I always remember, Californian Chablis.

Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chablis are all European wine producing regions (French in fact). The EU didn’t like their “trademarks” being used on other countries' wines and put a stop to it. Therefore the producers in these “New World” countries had to find another way of naming their wines and turned to the basic ingredient, grapes, as a way to clearly identify their wines, while at the same time drawing comparison to wines of the “Classic European Regions”.

Comparing wines from around the world.
With over 50% of our wine coming from outside Europe, grape types on labels are everywhere and they provide a great way of comparing wines from different places and observing the different effects that climate and winemaking practices have on quality and style of wine. Wines from Europe can often be a bit more confusing for people new to learning about wine, because usually the name of the grape type is not on the label. Usually this is because it is not allowed to be on the label. However, there is information on these labels which tell us what the grape types should be, along with various other pieces of information and a little bit of knowledge about these would certainly help our understanding.


Place Names (of origin).

A general rule used to be that wines from Europe more often or not do not have the grape type on the label. The reason for this is that in Europe a set of quality systems have been developed to protect both consumers and producers from fraud.

These systems are based on producers being allowed to put specific “Place of origin” names on their labels provided they meet a set of requirements which deal with grape types, production methods and style of wine. If producers meet these conditions they “qualify” for the particular place name on the label, if they do not meet these conditions, they are not allowed to use the Place Name on their label. Therefore seeing names such as Chablis, Rioja, Burgundy, Chianti, Jerez, Bordeaux, Port, instantly provide those of us who know what the requirements are each for “place of origin” a lot of information about the wine.

Examples
For example the name Chablis on a label tells me that the wine is white, the grape is chardonnay and that more likely than not, the wine will not have been aged in wooden barrels.

Port on a label tells me that the wine is a sweet fortified wine (usually red), made from a blend of Portugal’s best red grapes primarily the Touriga Nacional.

Burgundy on the label tells me that if the wine is red, the grape is Pinot Noir and if the wine is white, very probably Chardonnay.

Some people have difficulty understanding this concept, if so, try drawing an analogy to cheeses – Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Parmesan, or from the UK, Red Leicester, Wensleydale, Lanark Blue, Dunsyre. These cheeses are made in these locations and to be allowed to use these names, must use particular ingredients, be made in a particular way and reach a certain quality before “qualifying” for the particular tag.

That’s the “general” rule.

Exceptions – There are always exceptions! - In Germany, Austria, Alsace and Switzerland they often put the grape type (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Scherube, Pinot Gris) on the front, but in German form where you need to take your time and decipher it!


A final word on grape types and place names...

A final word and warning on grape types and place name labelling.

The “Rule” used to be – Old World > Place name; New World > Grape type.

Now, it is not always so obvious. On some New World wines you have to look hard to find the grape type and on some European wines you sometimes find the grape type there, bang up front on the label. It gets confusing, even for those “in the know”. (There will be an article on the website soon which looks at this issue in greater detail, if you are interested you can read it once I've put the link in.)

Miscellaneous Other things that you might see on a wine label.

Quality Level
Wines made in the EU must carry a description of the quality level on the label. This can be Vin de Table, Appellation Controlee, Premier Cru, Grand Cru, Qualitatswein, Crianza, Gran Reserva. Getting to know these terms will greatly aid the picture you can build of a wine before buying it.

Bottling Information
Was the wine bottled in the “Chateau”, at the “Estate”? This is useful if you wish to get an idea of the attention to detail paid in the wine’s production.

Health Warnings
Some governments require that you give health warnings on the effects of drinking alcohol on the label. The USA in particular requires this.

Descriptions & Narratives
Many wines now have back labels which provide a story about where the wine came from, how it was made, who made it, why it was made. Many of these provide very useful information, however do be aware that poetic licence is often exercised too.

Gold Medals/Silver Medals/Competition Winners
The wine trade is a great business for trying to find new ways to sell. Wine Competitions provide opportunities to do this and companies will often enter their wines into competitions in order to gain an extra promotional edge. These “competitions” involve wines being tasted unseen (i.e. nobody knows what they are) by panels of tasters who will rank them in terms of “quality”.

However beware, because just like the local flower show, you can only win a medal if you enter the competition and many
more wines do not enter. I always treat “Gold Medals” and competition triumphs warily, at best believing that the wine is soundly made, but not necessarily a good or ‘great” wine and I’m certainly never swayed to buy a wine because of one.

This is just a starter on the subject of wine labels, more will follow in future lessons or in articles, look out for them.

Meanwhile, click here to go back to Knowledge main menu or here to Learn about Grape Types


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