Tips and tricks

How to Read Wine Labels

Each bottle of wine typically has two labels. The back label usually provides basic information such as the volume of wine in the bottle and various government warnings, including the phrase “Contains Sulfites.” (Sulfites are a common food preservative to which about 1% of people in the world are allergic.) The front label, on the other hand, is usually splashy and attractive but needs a little explanation. 

New World Wine Labels

Front labels on New World wines typically contain the following information:

Wine Type: The basic category into which the wine falls—table wine, dessert wine, or sparkling wine. In the United States, table wine refers to a red or white wine that has no more than 14% alcohol.

Growing Region: The region where the grapes were grown. In the United States, a wine cannot have a regional appellation label unless at least 85% of the grapes were actually grown in that region. Rules in other countries vary. 

Reserve Designation: An essentially meaningless piece of information, since no rules govern what “reserve” means. On one bottle “reserve” might mean higher quality; on another it might mean nothing.

Vintage: The year the grapes (or at least 85% of the grapes) were grown and harvested. Wine gurus know not just where the best wines come from but also the best vintages for each region. 

Bottler Information: The location and name of the bottler. If a vineyard or winery bottles its own wine, then it can call its wine estate bottled. Estate bottled wines are often taken to be better crafted than wines bottled off-site.


European Wine Labels

European wine labels add one important piece of information to their front wine labels: the Appellation of Origin, which doubles as a designation of quality. There are three levels of quality among European wines.

• QWSPR wines: The best wines are marked by a place name followed by a specific phrase indicating that the wine is what the European Union calls a Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWSPR). Some European countries actually have two QWSPR designations to mark both high- and superior-quality wine.

• Table wines: The next two levels of quality in European wines are referred to as table wines. ( Note that in America the words “table wine” refer to alcohol content, but in Europe the term indicates quality.) Better European table wines have a specific geographic region included in their name; lower-quality table wines don’t.


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