I’m like a trained dog. The instant I hear the sound of a cork popping from a wine bottle, my piqued curiosity wants to know what the bottle looks like and whether the label has a simple elegance or flouts a flamboyant piece of grand-master bottle art. Either way, I’m thinking about some poor marketing intern or overworked vineyard owner sitting around with a pensive look trying to figure out how best to convince you to buy the bottle. But because laws in the United States require more than a decision between showy and minimalist marketing, domestic labels also provide some basic details about the wine. In addition to the self-explanatory things, like the alcohol content, brand name, volume, etc., labels generally contain a few bits of more esoteric information which will be useful if you want to know anything about that domestic bottle you’re holding in the store:
Most often, the wine type means a particular varietal, the kind of grape the winemaker used to make the wine. For instance, you might see a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, or like the bottle photographed here, a Pinot Gris. If a wine uses a varietal name, it must derive a minimum of 75% of its volume from the named grape, and the label must also provide an appellation of origin (more on that later). Sometimes the wine type is generic, like “Red Table Wine,” “White Blend,” or even more ambiguous, like “Winemaker’s Blend.” While many such labels voluntarily disclose a list of the varietals the wine contains or even the percentage of each type of grape, the law does not require it. If a generically labeled bottle does not disclose that kind of information, there may be no way to know from the label what kind of wine the bottle contains.
Why Wine Type is Important: Different grapes and blends produce extraordinarily distinct flavors and aromas. Wine type is therefore the single most vital piece of information you need to guess at what the wine might taste like. For instance, if the wine is a Muscat, you know that it will be extremely sweet. With even a rudimentary knowledge of varietal types in your back pocket, you can make a guess at a wine’s general characteristics.
If the label shows a year, like 2012 on the label shown here, this is the year in which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. The year has nothing to do with when the wine was bottled, but if it’s there, it means that 85% or more of the grapes used to make the wine were harvested in that year. The label will also have an appellation of origin if it provides a vintage.
Why Vintage is Important: Climate has a significant effect on the fruit that grapevines produce. For instance, if a particular year in the region you’re looking at saw too much precipitation at the end of the growing season, this could mean that the grapes were full of water and less flavorful when harvested. While a cold year can lead to a crisp acidity in the grapes that benefits white wines, reds produced in the same year may suffer. I’m not that guy in the wine section who knows vintage information off the top of his head, but this the sort of thing they make smartphones for, no?
Appellation of Origin
This bit tells the consumer where the grapes came from. It can be a country, state, county, a specific winemaking region, known as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), or even a particular vineyard. On the label photographed here, it’s “American,” meaning nothing more than that the grapes came from somewhere in the United States, perhaps not the best indication of high quality. When an appellation contains a country, state, or county, as here, this means that 75% or more of the grapes came from that place. If it uses an AVA, that certifies that 85% or more of the grapes originated in the AVA.
Why Appellation of Origin is Important: Like me, you may have once heard someone at a party talking about terroir and then googled it later in the privacy of your own home to discover that it refers to the the natural environment in which the grapes grew. This matters because it affects how the grapes taste, and therefore how wine made out of them tastes. Particular soils and climates are better suited to growing particular grapes, and some soils and climates simply aren’t well-suited to growing traditional varietals. If you had two wines from California, one made from Californian grapes and one made out of Alaskan grapes, which would you drink and which would you give to the party crasher who insists on one more glass?
A label must tell you something about the wine’s production, and usually it’s one of the following things:
“Estate Bottled” or “Grown, Produced and Bottled By” — these terms both mean that the named winery grew (on land it owned or controlled) 100% of the grapes used to make the wine, then crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine itself in one continuous operation. These terms indicate the highest quality in wine because of the uniformity of the grapes used and the winemaker’s absolute control over the entire winemaking process.
“Produced and Bottled By” — this term certifies that the entity who bottled the wine crushed and fermented at least 75% of the grapes at the stated location. In the case of our example bottle, 75% or more of the grapes were crushed and fermented at The Great Oregon Wine Company in McMinnville, Oregon. However, the term certifies nothing about who grew the grapes. The only information on our example label about the origin of the grapes comes from the “American” country designation.
“Made and Bottled By” or “Vinted and Bottled By” — Each of these terms indicates that the party listed on the label fermented at least 10% of the grapes used to make the wine. Generally, this can signify a lesser quality wine than “Estate Bottled” or “Produced and Bottled” wines because there has been no unified approach to the winemaking process as a whole.
“Cellared and Bottled By” — this means that the stated winery subjected the wine to cellar treatment on location before bottling it, as in “Hey, man, is that wine? That’s cool. I don’t really care about where it came from or what it is, I’m more of a marketing guy, but let me buy some and put it in my cellar. In a couple months or whatever, I can just bottle it up, slap this super clever label on it, and sell it to people.”
“Bottled By” — this phrase indicates nothing more than that the stated winery bottled the wine, which could be made from grapes grown somewhere else, crushed at a third location, fermented at a fourth, finished or aged at a fifth, etc. With very few exceptions, this isn’t going to be world-class wine. But hey, it’s probably cheap, and at least it isn’t pretending to be something it’s not by getting moved to a different cellar for a little while and then bragging about it.
Why Product Information is Important: You probably want to know whether what you’re buying is a Porsche or a Kia, and sometimes there’s no way to know from the sticker price alone. A Kia will get you from here to there, but you’ll have a much more pleasant trip in a Porsche, even if you bought it for cheap because it came “pre-driven” for 225,000 miles and the brand-new Kia would have cost more.
But really, these are just a few basics. Pro sommeliers have mad training.