How to Read Wine Labels
For the most part, wines of the New World (everywhere not called Europe) clearly state the name of the grape on the label - Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc.
But wines of the Old World (Europe) follow a stricter tradition of place. Here, the town or region comes first and the grape is meant to be understood by the masses as an obvious.
Saint Joseph. Chinon. Sancerre. Barolo. Beaujolais. Mosel. Bourgogne. Chianti. The list goes on and on and on and on.
Well, as we know, the average wine drinker is not a certified sommelier. And this is usually the first stumbling block when you're standing in the aisle of your local wine shop.
So, let's talk about it.
How to Read an Old-World Wine Label
Here's a typical Old World wine label.
There are 3 main pieces of information on every label that we need to know:
- The place
- The producer
- The vintage
1. The Place
The most crucial piece of information on a wine label is the place. The place tells you 90% of what you need to know. In Europe, the grape is usually not mentioned on the label, but the place is and the place tells you the grape - providing you know which grapes come from which places. And yes, that means memorizing a lot of places and their assigned grapes, but hey, if you've come this far then maybe you're willing to go a little farther.
Using our previously mentioned list of places, it goes something like this:
Saint Joseph (Syrah). Chinon (Cabernet Franc). Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc). Barolo (Nebbiolo). Beaujolais (Gamay). Mosel (Riesling). Bourgogne (Pinot Noir or Chardonnay). Chianti (Sangiovese). And the list goes on. It's a little bit like code.
If you're thinking to yourself, "how am I supposed to remember all of the towns in Europe and all of their grapes?", well then you're on the right track! It can be a little daunting, but that's part of the fun of learning about wine. And it's easier than it sounds.
2. The Producer
Think of wine as food. There's Italian food, French food, Mexican food, Thai food, etc. The next important part of reading a wine label is knowing the producer.
Maybe you really like Italian food, but we all know that not all Italian food is the same. The chef makes all the difference, and just like you think the Italian food that comes from that one restaurant in town is the best, some people think the wine that comes from that one producer is the best because with wine (like food) the producer (winemaker) makes all the difference.
And just like your favorite Italian restaurant is known for making the best spaghetti bolognese in town, so and so winemaker is known for making the best pinot noir in town.
Some winemakers (like some chefs) can do great things with average ingredients and mind-blowing things with excellent ingredients. In the case of wine, the ingredients are the grapes. The quality of the grapes varies largely, based on where the grapes come from, how they're grown and the year they come from (more below).
Once the grapes are back in the cellar (the kitchen) and ready to be processed (cooked), the method(s) in which one turns grape juice into wine can be the difference between Dominos and a Michelin Star.
3. The Vintage
The vintage, otherwise known as the year the grapes were grown and the wine was made is the third thing you need to look at when reading wine labels.
Vintage can mean so much because every year comes with its own set of weather patterns. Frost, hail, rain, not enough rain, not enough sun, too much sun, too cold, too warm, etc. - all of this has an effect on the way the grapes grow and the eventual quality of the fruit come harvest time.
A frost during bud break could decimate a vintage. A hail storm during flowering could destroy half of the crop. Too much rain coupled with warm temperatures could produce mold. These are the events that can make the difference between "good" and "bad" vintages.
Then there is the question of age.
It's a common misunderstanding that all wines get better with age, but the truth is the vast majority of wine is meant to be drunk young, within the first five years of bottling. Does that mean that your 6 year old sauvignon blanc is bad? No, just not really at its freshest.
Age really comes into play when talking about the wines of the world that age exceptionally well - Bordeaux, Barolo, Barbaresco, Burgundy, Rioja, Brunello di Montalcino, just to name a few. Not only do these wines get better with age but the year that they were made can really add to their deliciousness.
A year that was generally thought of as cold could produce fruit with too much acid and not enough sugar, resulting in a wine that tastes thin and lacks depth. A hot year could produce fruit with too much sugar and not enough acid resulting in a wine with too much alcohol and not enough freshness.
The vintage can make a difference but for your average $20-$30 bottle of wine it should be at the bottom of your list of concerns.
What About the Wine Label's Other Information?
Right... then there's that.
In addition to place, producer and vintage wine labels can throw curve balls of information that confuse and distract.
Using a few more detailed labels:
This is more of a Burgundy thing than anywhere else but does pop up in other regions. Terms like Grand Cru and Premier Cru (often written as 1er Cru) indicate the specific classification of wine. The best wines are labeled as Grand Cru, followed by Premier Cru, Village (here we see Mercurey indicating the fruit comes from that village exclusively) and Regional e.g. Bourgogne (Burgundy) indicating the fruit could come from multiple vineyards within the whole region of Burgundy, although this is generally not the case.
When fruit comes from one vineyard it earns a place on the label. Here we see Les Montots and Clos Des Myglands, a 1er Cru site in the village of Mercurey. When wine is vineyard specific it indicates a level of quality/character in the wine that wouldn't normally be found in a village or regional wine.
Monopole means the vineyard mentioned is owned by the domaine. This also signifies a level of quality. It's akin to saying "we didn't just buy this fruit from some farmer, we own the vineyard and care for the vines ourselves". It's like going to a restaurant that sources all of its produce from its own private garden.
Learning to Read Wine Labels Takes Time
Of course, knowing the hundreds of towns, regions, producers, and their respective wines requires a certain level of dedication and study. Wine is a dense subject after all. Ask questions and for god's sake, don't be afraid of looking silly.