How to Read A Wine Label

Wine labels can be tricky when you are trying to read them. Depending on the wine’s country of origin, it can be easy or hard to decipher what you are getting in any given bottle of wine.

The type of information found on a label can be helpful or useless if you don’t know what it all means. I know it’s not a lot to go on right now, so let’s look at it in more detail.

Basically there are two label types, New World and Old World. The Old World is more or less Europe. The New World includes countries like the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile…or not Europe.

We will just stick with the New World or US labeling to makes things simple.

Most other countries pretty much follow the same formula for front and back labels as the US does.  There may be slight differences in placement of info, but it should all be there.

► You can read more about old world vs new world wines here.

The front label: 

The information on a wine label usually dictated by the federal government of that country. Besides the alcohol % and volume, the label must contain who made it, where the grapes came from, what’s in it and when the grapes were picked (if it has a vintage).

So let’s figure out what all of that means.

Who: This is the label that is representing the wine in the bottle. You would think that it would be the winery that produced it, but that isn’t always true. A winery can have many labels under its production umbrella. How can you tell if it is the winery that produced it? Read the back label…we’ll get into that soon.

When: The year on the bottle is known as the vintage, it represents when the grapes were picked or harvest year.  Most people new to wine often have a misconception that the year on the bottle represents the year it was put into the bottle. If you don’t see a year, then it is known as a “non-vintage” wine…the producer blended different vintages together to create the final product. You’ll see this a lot with sparkling wine.

Where: This is where the grapes came from. If the wine was made with grapes from vineyards all over the state, it will say “California” for location. If the grapes were from vineyards just in the Napa Valley, it will say that.

If all of the grapes came from a designated AVA (American Viticulture Area), then it should say it on the label. To list an AVA on the label, at least 85% of the grapes have to come from that AVA.

A fine wine maker is very proud of where their grapes come from. So, for example, you may see some labels with Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley AVA.

Some winemakers go so far as to list one or all of the vineyards the grapes came from.

Please note: that even if the label says “Napa Valley”, that doesn’t mean it was produced in the Napa Valley.  That information will be on the back label.  We’re almost there…

What: This tells you what type of wine is in the bottle:  Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc. Where it gets a little confusing is with blended wine.

To be an official blended wine, the final blend must contain 74% or less of a dominant grape. So, if there is 75% Merlot and 25% Pinot Noir in a bottle, it can officially be called Merlot. If we change it to 70% Merlot and 30% Pinot, then it is a blended wine and the producer has to make up a name for that wine—for example “Old Friends Wine” versus “Old Friends Merlot”.

Funny thing about blended wines and labels is that if you have a Merlot, like the example above, the producer doesn’t have to tell you if the wine contains 25% Pinot.  However, most wineries that take pride their product will list all of the percentages of different grapes in the bottle.

That is actually one of the best indicators that you are buying a quality wine…they list the different grapes!

The back label

The back label differs by producer. Some producers use this space for tasting notes or to give a history of the winery or label.

Going back to the Who from the front label…On the back is where you can find out who made the wine. Production company and location must be listed here. So the front can read “Brown Hills” but the back will tell you the exact winery that produced it…”Old Friends Winery, Inc.”

Many fine wine producers like to use the back label for production technical notes. Some notes you may see are: Harvest sugar (Brix), how many tons picked, when it was picked, the acidity of the grape and the wine, if barrel aging was done, types of barrels, % of new versus old barrels used, how long it was aged, other grapes blended into it, etc.

Important to note that when you see tasting notes or tech notes or both, you are moving in the right direction.

You will also notice that production information is listed on the back label.  The label will read “Grown, produced and bottled by…” if it is an “estate bottled” wine.

For the US, “estate bottled” is a term regulated by the TTB.  In order to call a wine “estate bottled,” specific criteria must be met: 100 percent of the wine has to come from grapes grown on land controlled or owned by the winery; the grapes have to be processed, fermented, aged and bottled all at the winery; and all of that has to happen in the same AVA that’s listed on the bottle. An estate-bottled wine can’t use broader appellations like just listing it is from the United States or California. For example, Santa Ynez Valley AVA wine must be grown, produced and bottled in that AVA.

You may encounter some misuse of the term “estate” on a bottle. You might see “Fred’s Family Estate Winery” on a label.  That doesn’t mean the wine actually meets the criteria that a regulated estate wine has to. It’s just the name of the winery that produced the wine.

Here are a few more articles that dive deeper into specific wine label terms to help you understand label differences even better:

► What Does Vinted And Bottled By Mean On A Wine Label?
► What Does Reserve Mean On A Wine Label?
► Estate Grown vs Estate Bottled Wine
► What Does Cellared And Bottled By Mean On A Wine Label?

All of this information can be very overwhelming, especially if you are new to wine. Start one country at a time. Taste and take notes. It’s easier to retain after a good glass.