Decoding the Wine Label: Wine 101
For a lot of people, a wine label can seem like a foreign language — not least because it may even include a foreign language, depending on where it was made. With terms like “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” or “non-inoculated primary fermentation,” the average wine label could be the instruction manual for the international space station for all we know.
But these labels can actually be quite informative if you know what to look for — and they might even help you enjoy the wine a little more. While some wines might give you an entire chronicle of the winemaking process, there might also be tips and clues as to what flavors you’re looking in that bottle of wine you’re thinking of buying. So let’s break down a few of those crazy terms you might find on wine label, starting with the front of the bottle.
“Alcohol by Volume” (or “ABV”)
A standard used worldwide, this number will indicate how much alcohol is in the wine you’re buying. A typical ABV for wine is between 12.5 percent and 14.5 percent, but it can get as high as 25 percent in dessert wines. A wine can also be as low as 9 percent alcohol by volume. The higher the alcohol, the more likely you are to perceive a heat in the wine.
More than likely, the bottle of wine you’re perusing has a year stamped on the label. This year indicates when the grapes were picked or harvested. What vintage is considered “the best” actually has a lot to do with the winemaker and whether or not they had a good year. It’s worth researching so that you can determine for yourself which vintages from which producers you enjoy most.
Occasionally you’ll notice that a bottle does not indicate a year. This may simply mean it’s cheap (and thus, probably not that good). But when it comes to fortified (sweet) or sparkling wines, this is normal. These types of wines are usually made from blends of several vintages so their label may indicate “NV,” or “no vintage.”
Region or Country
Wine regions have been designated around the world. You may have heard of Napa in California or Bordeaux in France. But there are many other, lesser known regions that you may come across on a wine label. For instance, Alto Adige is a wine region in Italy famous for two red wines: Lagrein, a bold and dark red; and Schiava, a light, fruity red. Many wine regions excel in a few areas, and it’s good to know which types of wines are best from those regions. You can learn more about regions by searching for them on Snooth. But there’s nothing wrong with experimenting and learning about those wines on your own as well.
In addition to the region, you may also notice a stamp that says something like “Product of Italy.” This simply indicates from which country the wine came.
“AVA,” “AOC,” “DOC,” etc.
An Italian wine label might say “Denominazione di Origine Controllata” (DOC) meaning (in Italian) “controlled designation of origin.” This refers to a wine region that has sole ownership over a particular type of wine — like Prosecco in Italy. France follows a similar certification, “Appellation d’origine control (AOC).” You might see this designation on a bottle of Champagne, as Champagne, France is the only region legally allowed to market its sparkling wine as Champagne.
Many other countries have similar designations. Germany uses the “Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete,” Spain has the “Denominacion de Origen,” and the United States uses the “American Viticultural Areas” (AVA). You won’t always see this type of note on a bottle, but when you do, it means that you’re getting the wine from the one place in the world where it can be made.
“Estate Grown” / “Estate Bottled” / “Estate”
When you see one of these notes on a bottle, it means that the winery that bottled the wine was in full control of all the steps involved in winemaking, starting with the grapes. All the grapes used to make the wine must be grown on land owned by the winery in order for them to use this wording on their label. For instance, if you’re looking at an estate-grown bottle of Pinot Noir, that means that the winery grew all those Pinot Noir vines themselves and did not need to source any other grapes from another vineyard or winery.
Wineries that print this on their label are also required to have a winery and vineyard located in the same viticultural area (like those we discussed in the previous section). And all winemaking processes must be done on the winery’s own property. If this is the case, you may also notice a stamp on the back that says “Vinted & Bottled by” the winery.
By varietal, we mean the grapes that were used to make the wine. You may have heard of many of these, like Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay or Merlot. But others may not be as familiar, like Barbera, Mourvédre or Gewürztraminer. Occasionally a label will indicate a sequence of varietals, each with their own percentage. For instance, you might see, “82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 1% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc.” This means that the wine is made up of a combination of these grapes or a blend of the individual wines made from these grapes, according to the percentages stated. You may also notice that sometimes a bottle only indicates “Red Wine” or “White Wine,” which can also mean that the wine inside is made up of a combination or blend of several grapes.
These notes typically appear as a secondary element to the name of the wine and are often listed near the vintage or the region. But if you don’t recognize it immediately, have no fear. You can search for the varietal on Snooth and learn everything you need to know about it.
That should cover most of what you’ll encounter on the front of a label. What about the back? This will almost always include a warning — the Surgeon General’s warning, for instance. Occasionally additional text may provide some information on what the wine will taste like.
Sometimes labels may even detail how the wine was made. If this is the case, you’ll find some really unusual terms. We thought we’d decode a few of these for you as well:
“Whole Cluster Pressed”
This means the grapes are pressed while still attached to the stems. This is not unusual with high-quality white wines, since the alternative (destemming the grapes) can bruise the fruit and leave it exposed to oxygen, making it more likely to oxidize, which can wreak havoc on a wine. After this whole-cluster pressing, the winemaker is left with fresh grape juice and the remains of grape skins, seeds and stems.
When grapes are pressed, even lightly, some bits and pieces of skin, stems and general debris can find their way into the juice. By allowing the juice to settle over night, these bits and pieces, which can contribute off flavors to a wine, are allowed to settle to the bottom of the tank.
This is a word you’ll see often. It simply means that the juice, or wine in a barrel, is drained of the solids (the skin, stems and debris we mentioned above) that drop to the bottom of the barrel. Racking is often mentioned twice. The first racking is meant to get rid of the solids that slipped through the press. Later rackings drain off the yeast cells that were needed to trigger alcoholic fermentation — as well as any other debris that took longer to settle out of solution.
“Non-Inoculated Primary Fermentation”
This term is a doozy! It may sound a bit strange, but it’s really a very interesting and valuable phrase. What it means is that the winemaker has chosen to use the natural yeast that floats around the winery and among the vines to trigger primary fermentation or change the sugar in the grapes into alcohol — creating wine.
The alternative is for the winemaker to add commercial or cultivated yeast. Commercial yeasts are yeast strains cultivated commercially and sold with the promise of specific, consistent performance traits. They may promise to produce a fruitier wine or to withstand alcohol levels that naturally occurring yeast strains might not be able to survive. Cultivated yeast generally refers to that same commercial yeast, but not always. Sometimes it’s referring to yeast that has been cultivated by the winery itself.
As you might guess, secondary fermentation generally follows primary fermentation, or the conversion of grape juice into an alcoholic beverage (wine). But sometimes both primary and secondary fermentation can begin at the same time. While primary fermentation is triggered by yeast, secondary fermentation happens thanks to bacteria. Typically red wines will undergo secondary fermentation while white wines don’t. This type of fermentation gives the wine a lower acidity and delivers a buttery aroma as well.
This means that the wine has been aged in an oak barrel. One reason to age wine in wood barrels is to allow for a bit of oxidation. Of course, as we mentioned above, oxidation can be bad for wines; that certainly holds true during the winemaking process. But once the wine is finished, a slow, controlled introduction of oxygen allows the tannins (one of the key elements of wine) to soften, promotes color retention in red wines, and even adds to the flavor of the wine. Generally barrel aging is only used on red wines, and it can result in flavors of vanilla, toast and chocolate when new oak barrels are used.
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