Reading and Understanding an American Wine Label
By Brian Goode
It’s always said “the devil is in the details”. Whether you are on a restricted diet, or just plain interested, you’ll always learn more about what you put in your body, or on your skin, etc. if you read the label. The same can be said regarding a wine label. Each country requires specific information to be put on these labels- either to protect the consumer or to protect the wines’ reputation from being usurped by other nations. (Example: France’s (unsuccessful) attempts to protect names such as Burgundy, Champagne, or Chablis from being used by other countries.) Our country has followed the leads of many of the European nations in developing standards of production used for the making of wine.
In the United States the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, under the auspices of the Department of the Treasury, is the regulating body that manages how wine may be made, designated or sold. There are hosts of terms which appear on a wine label that have come to be accepted by the consuming public. These terms define what is in the bottle- from the contents to where, when, and how it was produced. Here are some of the more popular terms to look at when analyzing a bottle of wine.
Producer’s name: Who made the wine. Mondavi, Chateau St. Jean, etc.
Variety: This is the name of the grape used to make a wine. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon. According to the law, a wine must contain 75% of the mentioned varietal to use the varietal name on a label. (That leaves room for 25% other varietals!) One way to circumvent this law is to use a proprietary label. Red Velvet, currently produced by Cupcake, is a red blend- there is no information as to the percentage of any types of grapes contained within. Other proprietary names include Opus One (Mondavi) or Conundrum (Caymus). We don’t know exactly what’s in there, but at around $200 per bottle for the Opus One, we’re hoping that it’s something good…
Location: There are hundreds of areas in the country where wine is produced. If an area becomes recognized for having wines that display specific positive traits- i.e.- the Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley in California has a bright fruit, and lovely full body- the area may be designated as a specific region using the AVA (Agricultural Viticultural Area) system. The area starts with the state, and can become more geographically restricted as it is allowed. Identifying a wine as having come from a smaller geographic location is considered to be an asset to the wine’s quality, because it means the grapes have come from even more hallowed ground. For a wine with an AVA designation, 85% of the wine must come from the designated area. So if it says California (an AVA designation), 15% of the grapes could have come from outside of California, and the wine could still referred to using that designation.
Specific Vineyard within AVA location: A large winery, or even a smaller one, may have many locations within or even outside a specific location. A small parcel of land could be only a few acres, and may produce renowned wines. In order to qualify for vineyard designation on the label at least 95% of the grapes must have been grown there.
What an AVA doesn’t mean: In many other countries, a wine that receives a specific geographical designation usually must contain a certain set of grape varietals; this isn’t the case in the U.S.
Vintage: The vintage tells you that 95% of the wine in the bottle comes from the year indicated.
Alcohol percentage: The range for wine usually goes from around 7.5% for sweeter wines to around 16% for massive, sun-baked Zinfandels.
Additionally, there are some frequently used descriptive terms that can appear on a label. Understanding the meanings behind the phrases can shed a lot of light on a bottles’ contents.
Estate Bottled, Estate Grown, Produced, and Bottled: Means the same thing in the eyes of the law. The grapes were grown, on the land owned by the stated producer, at the location described on the bottle, during the indicated years, made into wine, and bottled there.
Produced and Bottled by: This means the wine was made by the listed producer. It also means that the wine was bottled by the producer. It does not, however, mean that the grapes were grown by the producer, or if the grapes were grown on their land.
Reserve: Still means nothing in the U.S.A. It means something in some European countries, but not here. The weight of meaning rests solely upon the integrity of the named producer. Hopefully, it means that it is more special, in more limited production, aged a little longer, etc., but there is no legal way to guarantee this.
Looking more carefully at a wine label, or any label for that matter, will reveal quite a bit about a producer’s intentions, by what it says as well as what it seems to be avoiding saying. Knowing the difference can help you make a better selection.
Brian Goode has been a chef and wine enthusiast for over thirty years, ever since his college days as a science major in Santa Cruz, California, and during his chef training at the Culinary Institute of America. During a Foodservice and Hospitality career in many areas around the country, he has received numerous awards for his cuisine, as well as several Wine Spectator Awards for his wine lists. He and his wife Joanne have been owners of Ye Olde Centerton Inn for seven years. He rarely declines an offer to talk about or taste wine and food.www.centertoninn.com or visit us on facebook