Step by Step Guide: How to Read a Wine Label
- Country and Region
Identifying and recognizing the country and/or region can help define some of the characteristics of the wine, as wines from specific areas tend to share similar qualities. As an example, wine can be broken down into Old World and New World.
- Old World vs. New World
The definition of Old World wine regions refers to countries where modern winemaking traditions first originated. These countries include France, Italy, Portugal, Spain etc. These regions have heavily influenced winemaking techniques on the rest of the world.
New World wine refers to countries that have been making wine for less than 400 years. Their winemaking traditions and techniques are influenced by Old World wine countries. Over time, these countries have developed new traditions and implemented new technology, such as using stainless steel tanks instead of oak barrels to ferment wine. These countries include North and South America, South Africa, Australia, and more.
As a rule of thumb, in the United States the more specific the location, the higher quality of wine you are buying. This specific location is known as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). An American Viticultural Area is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States.Each AVA has specific geographic or climatic features which affect how grapes are grown and more accurately allows customers to identify the origin of the wine they are purchasing. At least 85% of the grapes must come from the named AVA, e.g. “Napa Valley.” Napa Valley has a rich history of sourcing, both high quality red and white wines.
- Vintage and Non-vintage
The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested in. This can not only help dictate the amount of time wine has been aged, but also hint at the taste, quality, and attributes. This is primarily because of the weather, like heat and rain, that affects the vines throughout a particular growing season.
A non-vintage wine, wine without a year on its label, is created by blending different wines from different years. Non-vintage wine is made by pulling wine from multiple vintages, rather than surrendering to the vagaries of each growing season's weather. They are known to be a good value wine with a consistent flavor profile and style. A common non-vintage wine is Champagne labeled simply as “N.V.”
- Alcohol Content
Alcohol by volume (ABV) is also useful to know. Red wines typically hover around 13.5%, and white wines are usually a little less.
Wines over 14% ABV are mandated to add a numerical alcohol content statement. The numerical alcohol content can appear as either a specific number or a range. Wines that are under 14% ABV are not mandated to include a numerical alcohol content statement. However, they must list “table wine” or “light wine” if the ABV does not appear on the label.
- Wine Varietal
Wine varietal, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is also relevant. A wine’s varietal refers to the specific type of grape used to make that wine. Wines using varietal names must derive 75% of their volume from that designated grape. For example, a pinot noir derives 75% of its volume from red wine grapes.
Some wines tend to be labeled only red blend or white blend wine. This is essentially wine made from not one specific grape variety, and is a blend of different grapes. A white blend would refer to any white wine that contains more than one white grape varietal in the final product, and red blend wine would contain different red grape varietals.
- Declaration of Sulfites
Sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions that cause opened wine to spoil quickly. This warning is required for wine having sulfites above 10 parts per million (ppm)10mg/L. Although sulfites in wine are not harmful, this is important to know if you have sulfite sensitivity. Usually, those with asthma have a 5-10% chance of experiencing sulfite sensitivity.
In the early 1900s, the winemaking process began implementing sulfur to prevent bacteria and other yeasts from growing. Using sulfites during the winemaking process, instead of using it to clean wine barrels, has been around for as far back as ancient Rome. Back in Roman times, winemakers would burn candles made of sulfur in empty wine containers to keep the wines from turning to vinegar.
These are the most important components in learning to read a wine label. There are other ways to learn more about reading wine labels, including utilizing the app, Vivino. Vivino is a highly downloaded wine app that scans wine labels and provides detailed information about wine that are listed above and more. It also features user and expert ratings and the nearest store to purchase a particular wine. This app is great for both beginners and wine connoisseurs.