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Reading Wine Labels

Lesson Goals:

    1. Know what to look for on a wine label to determine if a bottle is worth its price
    2. Learn terms that imply quality
    3. Learn marketing terms that do not guarantee quality

Executive Summary:

    • A smart buyer looks for 5 data on a wine label to determine if a bottle is worth buying: grape variety/appellation, region, producer/vineyard, alcohol level, and vintage.
    • Unlike new world labels, traditional labels from "old world" wine prdoucing countries [France, Italy, Spain] do not specify varietals and thus require appellation knowledge.
    • Terms such as "Grand cru classe", "riserva" and "gran reserva" implies quality in France and Spain as specific requirements must be met before such terms could be applied.
    • Terms such as "grand vin", "cuvee", "reserve" do not guarantee quality.
    • "Old vines" while often preferred, is hard to benchmark as there is no regulation on the minimum age of an old vine.
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Wine Label: 5 Elements that Help You Determine if it is Worth The Buy

In a wine store, we often try to decide which bottle we should buy. All we know is the price and possibly what the sales recommend.

There are 5 pieces of information on a wine label that can help you determine if it is worth the price:

1. Grape Variety (or Appellation): grape variety tells you if it is a quality grape (capable of aging), the typical aroma categories, the body, the level of tannin, and likely complexity of the wine. For a list of varietal characteristics, download our study tool.

Many old world wine producing contries such as France, Spain, and Italy specify appellation rather than grape variety on the label. Appellation is the place of origin. In order to qualify for the appellation, the wine must be made from certain types of grapes. For example, the Barolo appellation can only be made from the Nebbiolo grape. To know what varietals are used for an appellation, visit our download section.

Example 1: Reading a Old World Wine Label

pichon wine label decoded

2. Region: hints the expected style, intensity, and flavor. For example, a Bordeaux everyday red is generally more earthy, medium body, and has lighter alcohol than an everyday Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Region is of particular importance in Burgundy where communes are strictly regulated by natural climate and terroir. A burgundy from Gevrey Chambertin is more masculine than a burgundy from Vosne Romanee.

3. Producer / Vineyard: tells you most about the expected wine quality and quality consistency.

In Bordeaux, producer is the best indication of quality and consistency. The 1855 classification of Bordeaux categorized producers into quality tiers based on price premium back in 1855. 63 producers were rated as "grand cru classe". Of them, four were rated "premier grand cru classe". Mouton Rothschild joined the premier grand cru classe rank in 1974, along with Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, and Haut Brion.

In Burgundy, the vineyard is the best indication of expected quality. Vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and Village grade in Burgundy. Needless to say, a Grand Cru has stricter quality requirement and commands a higher premium.

In many regions such as Italy's Piedmonte, both producer and vineyard matter. Giacosa for example makes many wines, some estate grown and some purchased. Its Le Rocche del Falleto 2004 (single vineyard, red label) is retailing at US$600; Its Santo Stefano di Neive 2004 (purchased grape, white label) is retailing at US$190 per bottle. Not knowing the vineyard difference could result in an unintended purchase.

4. Vintage: or the year the wine is produced – reveals the grape quality, the ability to age, and the best time period to drink the wine.

For example, a 1982 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild Pauillac -- we know 1982 is an excellent year for Bordeaux where top quality wines such as Lafite has fruit intensity, acidity, tannin, structure, complexity, and long aging potential. Having develop in the bottles for ~30 years, it is perfect for enjoyment now.

Vintage is very important for climate sensitive regions. Wines from the same producers can have different retail pricing over different years, as per the illustration below:

lafite wine price by vintage

5. Alcohol level: implies the body and sweetness of a bottle of wine. Above 14% wines are full-bodied and more tannic. At or above 18% implies a fortified wine (such as Port and Sherry).

Note that sweeter and lighter wines generally have alcoholic level below 11%. Sugar from grapes is tranformed into alcohol during the fermentation process.

Wine Label Terms that Imply Quality

AOC / DO / DOC / DOCG: Appellation terminology that indicates a higher quality wine.

Grands Cru or Premiers Cru: Throughout Europe in Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, Mosel, vineyards are categorized into village, premier cru, or grand cru. A grand cru vineyard is determined by regulatory body and has much stricter viticultural requirement.

For example in France, the top 1% of Burgundy wines would be labedled Grands Cru; and only 10% of Burgundy wines would fall into the Premiers Cru category. The rest is the village grade.

"Recoltés": Implies quality on a burgundy or a champagne wine label. It means estate grown grapes (i.e. not purchased grapes). Many negociants and Champagne house buy grapes to make their main wines.

The best wines require the best ingredients (i.e. the best grapes) to make. Wine collectors and wine lovers prefer estate grown wines as they imply higher quality, reflect producer's philosophy, and a more rigorous viticultural process. Seller of grapes are often incentized and go for quantity and weight over quality.

Riserva / Reserva / Gran Reserva: In Spain and Italy, riserva / reserva implies wines that have been aged in oak and bottle for an extended period before release. The additional aging allow the wine to gain more character as well as integrate its elements. In Spain, gran reserva requires a even longer aging period in oak and bottle before release.

The maturation requirement differs across regions. For example, a Chianti Riserva only requires 27 months of oak and bottle aging prior to release. A Brunello di Montalcino Riserva on the hand, requires a minimum of 5 years. This difference in production helps explain why Brunello is so much pricier than its cousin Chianti.

Vieilles Vignes (old vines): the wine is made from grapes grown on old vines, usually over 40 years old. Old vines have lower grape yield but produces grapes with richer flavors.

It is good to note that there is no consistent regulatory definition on old vines. A wine made from 80 year old vines and a wine made from 25 year old vines could both be labelled as old vines.

Example 2: Reading a Burgundy Wine Label

Example:  Reading Burgundy Wine Label

Wine Label Terms that Do Not Guarantee Quality

Sophisticated marketing in the past decades have resulted in vastly attractive and premium looking wine labels. Below are wine terms that look grand but in reality, offer no quality assurance:

“Superieur” describes a bottle with a higher alcohol level rather than being superior.

“Grand Vin”means the main wine of the vineyard rather than grand wine.

“Reserve” means extra aging but is so commonly marked on bottles (and has no commonly agreed standards) that it provides minimal / no differentiation.

"Cuvee" may implies a higher price line of a winery, but it is a price guarantee more than a quality guarantee.

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