How to Understand (Almost) Everything on a Wine Label

Classic examples of Old World and New World wine labels / Left photo: Meg Baggott; Right photo: Sara Littlejohn
Classic examples of Old World and New World wine labels / Left photo: Meg Baggott; Right photo: Sara Littlejohn

Have you ever looked at a bottle of Chianti, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Taurasi or Alentejo and wondered exactly what’s inside? Or how about when you come across a Rhône-style red blend from California? Wine labels can offer up a lot of information about what’s inside—that is if you can decode the cryptic language on the label.

But fear not. There are some basic formulas that can help you understand the rather confusing and sometimes smug words on wine labels.

How to Read a Wine Label

The first thing to determine is if the wine is from the Old World (Europe, the Mediterranean, parts of Western Asia) or New World (any other wine-producing region). While all labels will include basic facts like region, producer, alcohol by volume (abv) and vintage (unless nonvintage), there are some notable distinctions.

Here are the differences between what you may find on labels from these two categories.

Red wine from Cote de Bordeaux
Photo by Meg Baggott

Old World Wine Labels

The vast majority of Old World wines will typically only indicate regions and aging classifications on the front label, but not grape varieties.

For example, red Riojas are produced typically from Tempranillo grapes, possibly with Graciano, Garnacha and perhaps Mazuelo. (And how could anyone not know that Mazuelo is the name for Carignan in Rioja). The problem is you’d be hard-pressed to find a Rioja that lists any of these grapes on the front label, if at all. The same goes for Chianti (made from Sangiovese), Burgundy (Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white), Bordeaux and many others.

The main reason for these labeling practices is that these wines are more about a regional style than the grapes themselves. The same grape can show different characteristics based on climate, soil and terroir. So, while it may seem like producers are trying to confuse you by not naming the grapes on their bottles, it’s actually quite the opposite.

In recent years, some Old World producers have begun to name their wine’s grapes on the back labels, or even occasionally on the front. The caveat is that you’re expected to know what grapes can be (and are allowed to be) used in specific regions. That’s where a hint of Old World presumption can kick in.

Another characteristic of an Old World label is it may offer guidelines to aging. Unlike many New World wine labels, terms like “Reserva” (or “Riserva” in Italy) and “Gran Reserva” have real meaning based on the region they’re from.

However, each region’s regulations for age classifications can have almost identical names, but be very different. For example, if a bottle of red Rioja has Reserva on the label, that means it has been aged for a minimum of 36 months, with at least 12 months in oak.

However, a bottle of Chianti with Riserva on the label has spent at least 24 months in oak, with another three months in bottle. Additionally, a Brunello di Montalcino with Riserva on the label has spent five years aging after harvest, with at least two of those years spent in oak and six months in bottle. This is compared to the standard four total years (two in oak and four months in bottle) for non-Riserva Brunello.

German Riesling Labels
Photo by Matthew Dimas

The most confusing wine labels of them all might be German, which contain a multitude of technical information and German-language terms like “Trockenbeerenauslese,” “Bernkasteler Badstube” and “Grosses Gewächs.” One glance and you may feel you need to be a Mensa member to ever understand these descriptions.

Here are a few tricks to help you decode German labels:

German Wine Quick Tips

German labels include ripeness levels.

For Prädikatswein, a designation that denotes superior quality wines, the levels range from the least ripe (Kabinett) to the ripest (Trockenbeerenauslese) and everything in between (Spätlese, Auslese and Beerenauslese). The ripeness levels can help indicate the sweetness level of the final wine. There may also be specific sweetness levels noted on German wine labels, which include Trocken (dry), Halbtrocken (half-dry/off-dry) and Eiswein (sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes). You may also see Feinherb stated (another term to represent off-dry wines). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

When you see two names together, particularly if the first name ends with an ‘er,’ it denotes a subregion and vineyard.

So, Bernkasteler Badstube means the wine is from the Badstube vineyard, located within the Bernkastel subregion.

German wines have their own version of Crus, like Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Grosses Gewächs on a label refers to a “great growth” and a wine of the highest quality, where Grosse Lage and Erstes Lage refer to grand cru and premier cru, respectively.

From left to right; Kay Brothers 2017 Basket Pressed Amery Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); d’Arenberg 2014 The Derelict Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale); Yalumba 2016 Old Bush Vine Gre­nache (Barossa Valley); and Koerner 2018 Gullyview Vineyard Cannonau Grenache (Clare Valley)
Photo by Sara Littlejohn

New World Wine Labels

With wines from the U.S., South America, Oceania and most other non-European countries, the grape variety almost always appears on the label.

Originally, New World wine labels focused less on where the grapes were grown because they were basically all unknown wine regions. Rather, they highlighted grapes to link the wines to iconic European regions. A Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could be associated with Bordeaux, while a Chardonnay could be compared to Burgundy.

This also occurred because, unlike their Old World counterparts, the style of the wine focused more on the grape’s expression than the region, though this has certainly changed over time. Now, many non-European regions are home to some of the finest vineyards in the world.

New World wine labels tend to be fairly straightforward. More often than not, they provide the grapes, region, subregion and even a description of the wine’s aromas and flavors, usually on the back.

However, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Take one of the most popular wines in the U.S. right now, The Prisoner. That name is literally all you’ll find on the front label, while the back label states simply that it’s a “red wine” from Napa Valley. These wines, like some Old World counterparts, count on the prestige of their name communicating all a wine connoisseur needs to know.

The Dos and Don’ts of Wine Labels

Certain New World wines may also be deemed a Rhône-style red blend or a super Tuscan-style wine. Again, you have to know the grapes used in the historic European regions to understand what’s in the bottle. Typically, Rhône-style red blends from California are a combination of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre other grapes permitted in France’s Rhône Valley.

Keep in mind that with New World labels, terms like “Reserve,” “Special” and “Selection” don’t have any regulatory minimums in terms of aging or vineyard location. They are basically marketing terms meant to imply a higher-quality bottling, but they can be slapped on any label and offer no guarantee.

The only term that really has legal meaning in the U.S. is “Meritage,” the combination of “merit” and “heritage.” A number of California winemakers banded together in the late 1980s to form the Meritage Association (now Meritage Alliance) and created this classification for Bordeaux-style blends produced by member wineries, intended as a designation of quality. These wines must be a blend of two or more of the red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and the rarer St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenère. They can’t have more than 90% of any single variety. For white Meritage, the blend must include at least two of the three Bordeaux white grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.

There’s a lot to learn from wine labels—so long as you know where to look. Keep these tricks in mind and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

Published on January 21, 2020
Topics: Wine Basics