The label on a wine bottle tells you everything you need to know about the wine, accept of course whether or not you are going to like it. This discussion will deal with the labeling of New World wines, that is primarily non-European wines that are labeled in English. Old world wines labels are at best difficult for English-speaking consumers. Besides the added complexity of their not being in English, Old World labels frequently do not contain the grape varieties from which the wine is made and use terms unique to the countries of origin. New World wine labels, while much more “user-friendly”, can still be confusing. The fictitious label below contain just about every type of information that you will find on a New World wine label. While some of the information is regulated by law, much is unregulated and may or may not appear on the label of your wine.
Variety: The variety of grape from which a wine is made. The wine may be a blend of more than one variety, but may still be labeled as a single variety wine if that variety constitutes at least 75% of the wine.
Quality Designation: There are a variety of terms that may appear here: reserve, select, etc., all meant to convey that there is something special about the wine that increases its quality. This something special could be extra attention from the winemaker during the cultivation or harvesting of the grapes, during the wine making process, etc. Since this terminology is unregulated, it should not be used to compare wines of different winemakers. For example, the reserve wine of winemaker A may not be better than the non-reserve wine of winemaker B. However, the reserve wine of winemaker A should be better than the non-reserve wine of that same winemaker.
Geographic Origin: Also referred to as Appellation. The geographic region where the wine’s grapes were grown. Since soil and climate determine the character of grapes, knowing where the grapes were grown is important. There may be varying degrees of detail of this type. The label could simply read California, a very broad geographic designation that doesn’t tell you much. The example is very specific, indicating that the wine came from a specific vineyard (Round Top) within a specific district or AVA (Stags Leap) within Napa Valley. So if you are a fan of Stags Leap wines, you would know this wine might interest you.
Vintage: The year in which the wine grapes were harvested, not the year the wine was made or bottled. By law, if a vintage is shown, 95% of the wine must be made from grapes grown in the harvest year. Wines that do not meet these guidelines are marked NV for Non-Vintage or simply do not show a vintage on the label. With some significant exceptions, you may find 'nearby' vintages very similar. Modern viticulture and production methods have reduced, although not eliminated, dramatic year-to-year variation.
Maker: The company that produces the wine. Some companies do not grow, harvest or crush their own grapes or for that matter actually make the wine. They pay someone else to do it to their specifications and then put their company’s name on the bottle. So, maker tells you the name of the company, but not much else. Processing: A producer that grew the grapes, fermented the wine, and bottled the wine entirely within the appellation where the grapes were grown can label their wine “estate bottled”. Phrases such as “cellared and bottled by” or “vinted and bottled by” mean that the bottling winery did not ferment or produce the wine, but bottled it.
Filtering: A process used to clarify wine just prior to bottling. The purpose of filtering is to remove yeast cells and other microorganisms that could spoil the wine, as well as any remaining sediment that would keep it from being crystal clear, which is what most of us expect. Some winemakers believe that filtering removes some of a wine’s flavor and body along the sediment. An unfiltered wine has undergone other processes such as centrifuging, cold stabilization, fining or racking to remove particles from the wine. Unfiltered wines, which are usually labeled “unfiltered”, often leave a small deposit of sediment in the bottle and may be cloudy in the glass.
Sulfites: Sulfites are often used as preservatives in wines to retard spoilage and oxidation. Some people are allergic to sulfites and have varying unpleasant reactions to them. Sulfites occur naturally in almost all wines, so organic wines are not necessarily sulfite-free. Wines in the US must be labeled as containing sulfites if they contain more than 10 parts per million.
Alcohol Content: The alcohol in wine is as important as the grape itself. It doesn’t just affect how you feel, it affects the wine’s taste, texture, and structure. In the United States table wine is between 11% and 14% alcohol by volume. The law permits a 1.5% margin of error, so a wine labeled 12.5% can have as little as 11% and as much as 14% alcohol by volume.