The language on wine labels can be carefully crafted, maddeningly complicated, or both. The terms “estate,” “estate-bottled” and “single vineyard” all sound vaguely similar, but have distinct definitions that can vary by country.
Grapes used to make a single-vineyard wine come from one vineyard. The producer whose name is on the label might not own that vineyard or control how it’s farmed. What you buy with a single-vineyard wine is geographic specificity.
Meanwhile, estate wines speak to agricultural consistency.
“In most growing regions, ‘estate’ means the winery controls 100% of the farming,” says Dan O’Brien, proprietor of Sonoma Valley’s Gail Wines. The grapes might be grown on different plots of land, and the producer might own some or all or none of that land. But the grapes are farmed by the same entity.
“Estate” isn’t a legally regulated term in the U.S., so savvy marketers might use it regardless of who farmed what. But a similar phrase, estate bottled, is legally protected.
“In the USA, the term ‘estate bottled’ is defined by law and the wine must have been made and bottled at the producer’s winery, and from grapes from vineyards owned or controlled by the producer that are within the same viticultural area as the winery,” says Vicky Burt MW, head of product development for wine qualifications at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.
In other words, estate-bottled wines are made with grapes that share geographical provenance and are farmed, fermented, aged and bottled on-site.
Complicating things further, these terms can be used differently in various parts of the world.
“In South Africa, to use the term ‘estate,’ all of the grapes must come from vineyards within a single geographical unit… and the wine must also be produced and bottled in the producer’s winery within that unit,” says Burt.
South African estate wine is akin to estate-bottled wine in the U.S.
In Burgundy, she says, a winery might create another label to differentiate between the wines made with fruit it farms versus those made from purchased fruit.
Given these nuances, what should we think when we see the words “estate,” “estate-bottled” or “single-vineyard” on a wine label? Should we expect to pay more for those bottles?
Probably, says Yassmin Dever, associate wine advisor for Sotheby’s. “Estate-bottled and single-vineyard wines do tend to be associated with higher quality with higher prices to match.
“Generally speaking, wine quality tends to increase the more specific you get in terms of where the grapes are sourced,” she says. “There is also a ‘rarity’ factor as these wines tend to be made in more limited quantities.”
O’Brien says that producers label their wines “single-vineyard” or “estate” do so to call attention to them. They might be the producers’ highest quality wines, or they might just be different from what consumers expect from them or their region.
These terms don’t necessarily guarantee quality, of course.
“There are some outstanding wines that are produced by blending the fruit from a number of high-quality vineyard sites, taking advantage of the varied characteristics that fruit from different vineyards can provide to the blend,” says Burt.
“So wines made from grapes from a single vineyard are not always higher in quality than those that are not,” she says. Nothing in or on a bottle of wine is all that simple.