How to Read a Wine Label

10/11/2008 17:41

 How To Read a Wine Label

By Marian Jansen op de Haar

The wine aisle can be an intimidating place, even for seasoned wine aficionados who would like to try something new. The labels range from quirky and fun to stately and regal, from eye-catching to simple. Studies have shown that most consumers choose a wine based on the appeal of its label, but a pretty picture does not necessarily a good wine make.

Although few consumers fully understand the information provided on wine labels, there are some key points that will help you to make an informed decision.

Comprehending a wine label first requires deciphering the facts from the hype. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), regulates and approves labels for all wine sold in the United States. Unfortunately, there are no laws or regulations that govern the use of buzz phrases such as “Reserve,” “Private Stock,” or “Limited Release.” Tasting notes on the back of a bottle are also unregulated. While most winemakers use those descriptions in good faith, savvy consumers should be aware that most of these terms are simply a way of selling wine and do not always guarantee quality. The good news, however, is that the TTB does regulate most everything else that appears on the label.

Armed with this information, choosing a wine in your price range becomes much easier by moving from the general to the more specific. First, you want to start with varietal. Once you have decided what type of wine you want—Chardonnay or Viognier, Pinot Noir or Merlot-- then you can start narrowing down the selections.

The next step is to look at vintage. Most vintages that are available will be recent, and occasionally you may see a 2005 and 2006 on the shelf at the same time. If a label has a vintage year, the TTB requires that it also contain an appellation of origin more specific than just a country name. In the United States, an appellation can be the name of the country, state, county or geographic region. Generally speaking, the larger the appellation, the less specific and more generic the taste profile is. The more restricted the area, the more you should be able to detect tastes specific to the region.

A very broad appellation such as a state name means that the winery can pick grapes from anywhere in that state to make the wine. An example of a state appellation wine is the Red Diamond, Washington Merlot, 2004. This is a great value-oriented wine with berry flavors a velvety texture and moderate tannins. A very easy wine to drink, it is perfect for every day and a wine to pop open and drink without decanting.

The next level is a county appellation such as the Dry Creek Vineyard, Sonoma County Heritage Zinfandel, 2006. Both county and state appellations are required to be made from at least 75 percent of grapes grown in that area. Dry Creek is a textbook Zinfandel with typical Sonoma County flavors of black pepper spice and juicy fruit. The black cherry and currant flavors are finished with dark chocolate. The slightly lower than usual alcohol level in this Zinfandel makes the wine more approachable.

The third appellation level is the geographic region or viticultural area. The TTB manages the list of federally approved Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. A few examples of well-known California AVAs are Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Carneros, Napa Valley, Oakville, Rutherford and Howell Mountain. If you see an AVA listed on the label, it means that a minimum of 85 percent of the grapes to make the wine come from that region. If you’re interested in trying an AVA-labeled wine, you can’t go wrong with the Picket Fence, Russian River Valley Chardonnay, 2006. Well-balanced, this Chardonnay is initially rich in apple and pear flavors with an edge of tropical fruits and citrus, followed by a nice mineral finish and ample acidity. Judiciously oaked with a slight creamy texture, this Chardonnay has something for everyone.

The most specific appellation is a vineyard designation. In order to display this on its label, the wine must be made from at least 95 percent of grapes from that vineyard. Some famous vineyards in California include ToKalon, Hyde, Gary’s and Dutton Ranch. Two prime examples of vineyard designated wines include the Patz & Hall, Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch, 2005, and the Provenance Vineyards, Oakville Beckstoffer-To Kalon Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005. The Patz & Hall Chardonnay displays beautiful aromas of lemon and passion fruits and has flavors of lemon chiffon pie and pineapple fruit flavors with hints of buttered toast and caramel. The finish is sophisticated with integrated acidity and minerality.

The 2005 Provenance Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, is a rich Cabernet with scents of violets, leather, and spice and black berry, dried currant and wild berry fruit flavors. The combination is typical for high quality Oakville Cabs. From the historic To Kalon vineyard in Oakville, this wine is well-balanced and a terrific value for this vineyard and vintage.

So the next time you’re shopping for wine, don’t let the labels overwhelm you. Armed with the right information, every wine lover can navigate the selection and come home with few unhappy surprises.

Happy Tasting!

Label Laws

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), regulates wine labels for all wine sold in the U.S.


Winemakers are not required to put a vintage on their labels, when it does appear it means 95 percent of the wine is from grapes harvested and fermented within that calendar year.


If a label has a vintage year, the TTB requires that it also contain an appellation of origin more specific than just a country name. In the U.S., an appellation can be the name of a country, state, county or geographic region.

Alcohol Content

Labels such as “Table Wine” simply mean the wine contains between seven and 14 percent alcohol. The TTB allows for 1.5 percent latitude above the stated level for wines less than 14 percent alcohol. Many wines are labeled “alcohol 12.5% by volume” to take full advantage of this latitude.

Marian Jansen op de Haar is the Director of Wine for Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

She has over 30 years of wine experience under her belt and single-handedly developed the Fleming's 100 wines-by-the-glass program. 

Gottannins is happy to have Marian as a guest contributor to our site and if this debut piece is a sign of what to comes, we think we'll all learn some awesome new things about the wine world. Stay tuned for additional stories and keep the feedback coming. 

Her bio may be viewed here.



Topic: How to Read a Wine Label


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