Monday, April 29, 2019

Reading a label, Important information you can get before making a purchase

It’s time to talk a bit about labels, besides being a great marketing tool to attract your attention to bottle A instead of B, labels provide a lot information and details that can help you decide and make a wise choice when buying wines.

Let’s analyze some of the terms used on labels and what they mean.

The first item in all labels will be the Brand or Producer’s name, these will be very important when you are familiar with a specific winery, but these days we can also find some wineries that produce all sorts of wines, meaning, inexpensive, middle level and super premium. What I’m trying to say is that the name should be the first item we should check but we must continue our investigation for more info before making a purchase decision. For example Trapiche (Argentinian producer) makes Trapiche Oak Cask, (inexpensive everyday wine) and also Trapiche Single Vineyard (Super Premium wine and $$$).

The Vintage, in another words, the year the grapes in our wine were harvested, is important to know and to find out how old our wine is, i.e. its age. For whites and rosés, you will buy the youngest vintages available (be careful with the bottles offered in those sales bins), since fruit disappears as a wine ages, white and rosés are made to be drunk young, when the fruit is fresh in your bottles.   Vintages are important because the weather varies year to year, so some years have great vintages, with enough sun to mature the grapes to perfection and in other years we have plenty of rain or frost, or cool weather, so grapes don’t get the same maturation. Wines from vintage A will be different to vintage B. Though producers try to keep consistency, is not always possible.

Grape variety and origin: here is the most valuable information for any wine buyer. Remember what I taught you in my Old world vs New world wines post, and I told you that in the Old World (most of Europe, for example France, Spain) they put the regions on the labels but not the grape varieties, this require all Winos to learn about grapes allowed in each appellation. In the New World, producers put the grape varieties on labels, though these days, they may also put some information about the origin (state or province, or an AVA for example in the case of domestic wine: California or Napa). But I also told you that in the Old World everything is regulated (specially viticulture and vinification) and wines are classified by quality, the best wines are usually AOC (France) DOC or DO (Spain) DOC or DOCG (Italy), all of these mean quality has been checked from the vineyards to the final product. IGT (Italy), Vin de Pays (France) are quality wise in the middle (not the best wine, yet not the simplest, actually I’d like to think that this category are the future DOC or AOC) and then Vino Da Tavola and Vin de Table (the lowest category of all) meaning regulations become less strict as you go down the different levels and with it their quality.

There’s in the Old World a category that I called “in between” this is found very often in Italy, where sometimes we will find the grape and also the region on the same label. Barbera (grape) d’Asti (region). See sample of this label at the end.  Another example of this, can be found in the wines of Alsace, Riesling and AOC Alsace. In the New World, the grapes are always listed. When the wine is a blend, instead of putting 3 or 4 grape names on the label, producers create a fantasy or proprietary name like Joseph Phelps “Insignia” which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot.

A note about origin, the smaller the area, the better the wine, for example, a Bourgogne Rouge, is the simplest generic burgundy and could be made with grapes from all over burgundy, but if we find a Puligny Montrachet AOC (that means a smaller enclave within Burgundy, so this means this wine was made with grapes grown there and only there). If the label says Puligny Montrachet “Champ Gains”, this means and even more specific piece of land within Puligny Montrachet region. The reason why this happens, is because Europeans value terroir or  the marriage between grape, soil and weather patterns of any specific region, and so a wine made in Puligny Montrachet “Champ Gains” is even better, since conditions in this specific vineyard are so special, they were identified and put on the label.

In the New World, a wine labelled California, will be made with grapes from the whole state, but if the wine says Russian River (AVA), that is an specific appellation/ region inside California, known to have great conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and a step up in quality.

Other terms that can appear and can shed more light about the style of wine inside the bottle, terms as aged in wood, aged in new oak, fermented in oak,these will alert you of tannins in wine i.e. structure, and about the presence of flavors that only oak can provide: vanilla, coconut, chocolate, caramel, spices, etc. If you like those in wine, this could be good or bad. New oak aging means more quality and $$$$, because barrels are expensive to make and no wine producer will age in oak inexpensive wines, most producers will age in oak their good to best wines.

 Without filtering is another term, is this good or bad? According to the experts, this is good, since experts complain that filtration though necessary to make the wine stable chemically, also takes away elements, compounds of wine that give the wines their personality and uniqueness. So no filtering will mean more flavor, but when serving these wines be careful, because it also means deposits, (don’t be afraid of them) just decant the bottle before you drink it.  Deposits are harmless, yet producers are sacrificing beauty to flavor/personality.

Organic, another important term, this could refer that the grapes were grown organically (without  any use of chemicals) or the wine was made without sulfites (something necessary to prevent oxidation and to give wine stability). Most wines have sulfites but in small amounts that our human bodies can tolerate. If sulfites give you headaches, stir away from sweet wines, since they have more sulfites than any of the rest.

Terms as sec, demisec, seco, trocken, those mean dry in different languages and another hint/ detail about style, depending on the amount of residual sugar a wine can have. This is important especially for sparkling wines, where brut nature is probably the driest of all styles for example.

Terms such as Reserve, Riserva, Reserva, are important if the wines come from Portugal, Spain or Italy, where these terms mean minimum aging in oak or oak and bottle. Outside these nations, this term doesn’t have any value, it could be considered similar to cuvee or special blend, in other words it is more a marketing tool than an indicator of quality.

The words n
égociant or cooperative, also have a different connotation, négociant is someone who buys grapes from growers, not all négociants are created equal, some are better than others, meaning they may or may not be personally involved in the  growth of the vineyards whose fruit they buy. Cooperative means that a bunch of producers have come together and made a wine. I have tasted great wines from cooperatives, though most wine experts tend to dismiss them, in favor of wines made from grapes/vines owned by the winery/chateau. So winery owned vineyards, mean quality too.

Single vineyard,1st growth, Great Growth or GG, Vinos de Pago,Premier Cru, Grand Cru all mean quality, (grapes from a special plot). But know that some of these can be very expensive $$$.

Old vines, sometimes producers will even add the age of the vines, 100 year old vines, 50 year old vines, etc. Also mean quality, the older the vine, the better and the more concentrated fruit it will provide. So old vines usually mean more quality and fruit concentration.

Alcohol levels are also found on labels, this is important too, not only if you want to get drunk or not, but mostly because alcohol affects the weight/ body of the wine. Low alcohol equals light wine and so forth. Light wines will be between 8 and 11.5%, medium bodied wines 12 to 12, 5 %. 13% and up are considered big bodied wines. Also according to US law, the label can lie as much as 1%, so for example a California Zinfandel said to have 13%,  could have that or it could have as much as 14%.

When reading a label, always look also at the back labels, some wineries add tasting notes,  with aromas descriptors which will provide more info about the flavor and style of the wine. They even add food matches, like “best with barbecue and hard cheeses”, etc. 

See below some samples of labels and the info they can provide.

This label belongs to a very good quality and expensive wine, first the words Grand Cru, second the name of this appellation Bienvenues Batard Montrachet. Following the French system no grape is listed here, for those who want to know the grape is chardonnay.

Here is a sample of the in between system, because it mentions both the grape (Barbera) and the region (Asti), it also include the fantasy name of the wine (Ante).

Typical label from the new world, in this case from Australia, it mentions the name of the grape (Shiraz) and the brand Rosemount.


Finally, May is the month of Mother’s Day, graduations and weddings. So, here a few recommendations under $20.


Piper Sonoma NV, CA $16
Gruet Brut Blanc de Noirs, NV, NM $15

Light Whites:

Gini Soave 2016, Soave Italy $15
Susana Balbo Crios Torrontes 2016, Mendoza Argentina $14

Medium Reds:
Protos Crianza 2014, D.O. Ribera Del Duero $ 20
Concha y Toro Serie Riberas Gran Reserva Carmenere 2016. Chile $17

See you next time, in the meantime, you know what to do... keep on drinking! Cheers, Silvina