If you’ve ever ordered a bottle of wine at a restaurant, you know it’s customary for the waiter or sommelier to present the bottle and its label to the table before opening. This is when most of us glance at the label and instinctively nod our head without a second thought as to what the label is actually telling us—wine in a glass is certainly better than wine in a bottle, right?
Wine labels are at best inconsistent and at worst misleading to the uninformed drinker. Here in the United States, for instance, federal laws ensure some continuity; meanwhile, other wine-producing countries have their own sets of rules and standards, expressed differently throughout France, Spain, Italy and Argentina.
Don’t let this discourage you. While you might not yet be fluent in French, you can certainly learn to recognize the components of wine labels that provide the most relevant information with regard to quality. And by becoming more aware of these label attributes, you’ll find it much easier to navigate a wine section at the grocery store or a wine list at a restaurant—you might even have something to say the next time the wine is presented.
Let’s begin with the most easily identified attribute: its vintage—always labeled as a year. The vintage of a wine is its birthdate, the year the grapes were harvested to make the wine. Vintage can give wine a sense of time and place—a good growing year will often result in a balanced vintage. Conversely, a difficult harvest may result in less balanced wine.
If a wine is labeled non-vintage, this means the grapes were used from multiple harvests. This practice of mixing vintages varies from region to region and is usually done to control flavor profiles from year to year. Generally, multi-vintage wines are less prized, though not necessarily indicative of a wine’s quality. In the US, wine can legally contain up to 5 percent of mixed-vintage grapes and still be labeled a single vintage. In other countries the percentage can be as high as 25.
Remember, not all wine gets better with age. Don’t base your selection strictly on vintage. Rosé, for example, is best enjoyed within one or two years of the vintage date.
Foreign and domestic wine labels differ significantly with emphases paid to region, or where the grapes are grown. French labels, for example, highlight the region by presenting it prominently on the label, whereas domestic wines typically dedicate that space to the producer or brand name.
Certain regions, both domestic and foreign, are well known for growing wine; these wines are considered more valuable. Look for wines with specificity. The more generic the location, the more likely the grapes were sourced using several vineyards in varying locations.
For example, a wine labeled “California” doesn’t testify as to where specifically the grapes were grown. Wines labeled “Napa Valley” are a bit more specific; even better are labels containing a single vineyard like “Rutherford Estate Vineyard.” The more specific the region, the more likely the wine will be of greater quality.
Most of the time, especially on domestic bottles, the grape varietal will appear prominently on the label. That’s because most wine drinkers gravitate toward particular varietals like merlot, chardonnay or pinot noir.
Foreign wines tend to focus on the appellation instead of the variety, which usually requires a little more investigation if you’re not familiar with that country’s wine industry. Appellation refers to the name or title given to an area, which for many French and Italian wines is indicative of the grapes being grown there.
In the US, the producer of a wine will be a prominent feature on the label. Most domestic wines prefer to highlight the producer over region or variety, but not always.
The importance of who produces a wine is a debatable topic. Some highly respected wineries may charge unreasonable prices for a bottle based on a winery’s brand identity and not necessarily the quality of the wine. Conversely, boutique wineries are often lesser known than well-established wineries, but produce equal, if not better-quality wine.
Don’t be afraid to try new wines from unfamiliar producer names. Pay attention to the wine’s region—if it’s fairly specific or from an established vineyard, it’s likely a good bottle of wine.
Estate-bottled wines are produced exclusively at the winery. From harvesting the grapes to fermentation and bottling, these wines are handcrafted from beginning to end.
In the US, “Reserve” is a vague term. Some large wine producers label every vintage “Reserve,” while some wineries don’t offer a reserve at all. The term “Reserve” is subjective to the winery labeling the wine. Usually, “Reserve” is reserved for bottles of an exceptional vintage or best barrel.
This is a great way to get to know more about a winery and how it distinguishes its wines, categorically speaking, from one harvest to the next. It would probably be safe to splurge on a family vineyard’s “Reserve” as opposed to a mass-produced “California” wine also labeled “Reserve.”
So the next time you’re out shopping for wine, take a few extra moments to identify these varying components of wine labels. You might be surprised by what you decide to take home.
Enjoy all the varietals that Peju, a family-owned winery in Napa Valley, California, has to offer. We invite you to explore our website for more information about experiencing our wines and events.