Just like learning how to read the nutritional labels on the side of a food product, so is learning to read a wine label when trying to purchase the best, quality-driven product. Wine labels are used to catch your attention and to convey a message or story to you about what you think you might be buying. Sometimes the wine label is the only information you may have for evaluating the bottle before purchase. Learning how to read a wine label is important because these labels contain a plethora of marketing messages all aimed at enticing you to pick their product off the shelf amongst a sea of others.
Luckily, Wine Oh TV is here to help you with a few tips and tricks to learn how to read wine labels more effectively and it won’t be long before you are a label hound sniffing out the good from the bad, the authentic from the real, the fake from the deceptive, or the fraudulent from the factual. But, before we step onto the slippery slope of teaching you how to decipher good marketing from bad, it is important to educate yourself as to what is legally required on every wine label. Every wine bottle sold in the United States, whether it is import or export, must have a wine label affixed to it that is approved by the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Below is a list of wine label “must have’s” as well as things to watch out for when purchasing a bottle of wine. Also, check out our pictures of some really creative wine labels that we found!
Wine Label Must Have’s
- Sulfite Declaration and Health Warning Statement
- Name and address of Producer or Bottler
- Net contents (1.5 ml = magnum, 750 ml = standard wine bottle, 375 ml dessert wine bottle, etc.)
- % of Alcohol by volume or ABV
- Appellation of Origin or AVA (Agriculture Viticulture Area)
- Brand Name
Location, Location, Location
Getting to know AVAs may be-YAWN- a little boring, but just like real estate, it is critical to know where your wine comes from as it could suggest quality because not all AVAs are created equal and some are better than others. Similar to the rest of the world, the United States organizes its grape growing areas into American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). All these areas have been recognized and given AVA status based on their similar growing conditions, recognizable name, and historical boundaries of a grape growing region.
It’s good to be a little clever
This is a classic move in the wine-trickery playbook: use unregulated or undefined words on wine labels to add appeal to the bottle. Wineries have freedom to use many words that are unregulated by the TTB. A few you might recognize: Reserve, Private Reserve, Late Harvest, Old Vine, Antique Vine, Old World, Sweet, Vineyard Designate, and Small Lot. More often than not, producers do use these words as they should, but it is possible that they are used to get your attention. One exception to the rule is the word “Estate.” “Estate” is a defined word that is moderated by the TTB. To use this term, a winery and a vineyard must be located in the same AVA, the winery must control how the grapes are tended to, and the wine must have been produced and bottled at the winery. All these practices can suggest quality.
It’s not all about the name
Back in the day, you could pretty much put whatever you wanted on the bottle like- Pinot Chardonnay. But today, wine needs to have an approved varietal name on the bottle or a “fanciful” name (special term used by the TTB). Know that just because Merlot appears on your bottle, doesn’t mean that there is 100% Merlot in that bottle. Only 85% of a named varietal needs to be in the bottle. The other 15% can be whatever the winery chooses, from wherever they choose (unless it is “Estate”).
If we could stop time
Wine doesn’t always getting better with the passing of time and it is important to know what the vintage date on the bottle may tell you. Unless you are a serious wine collector, you probably don’t care about remembering the weather of a specific year or vintage that the grapes were picked. But, you may want to be wary of an older vintage as the wine may be passed its prime, especially if you are paying a pretty penny for it. Most wine produced in the United States is meant for immediate consumption. If you are buying a light red or in expensive white wine older than three years, you may want to try something else. Red wines are a little trickier as they may be able to survive longer, and tasting them is encouraged!