We’ve all had the experience of walking into a wine store and not knowing how to choose between this Rosé or that Côtes du Rhône. Sommelier extraordinaire Claire Paparazzo is here with the guide to help with that.
Wine labels can seem very confusing—they contain a lot of information, but very little to provide the non-expert with the clues they need to choose. But depending on what you're looking for, there are some helpful tips to help you find what you need.
Let’s start with the easiest and go from there.
A wine’s vintage is the year the grapes were harvested, and it can come in handy when you want to knock it out of the park to celebrate a milestone birthday for someone—choose a wine whose vintage is the same year they were born. Granted, this works best if they were born in an exceptional vintage year, but I would say you can’t go wrong with Bordeaux—these vineyards produce such large quantities of wine that there may be some special bottles still available in any given year. For instance, 1982 was a great vintage in Bordeaux. Yes, it comes with a price point, but Bordeaux is where you can still find bottles if you want to splurge. For more reasonably priced older wine, I look to Spain.
This may seem like an easy go-to for selecting your wine, but in fact, not all wine is labeled by the grape. French wines are labeled by region or “appellation,” so you’ll have an easier time parsing these wines if you begin to learn which regions produce which grapes. For instance, in Burgundy, France, if you see a Morey-Saint-Denis and it is a red wine, it is certainly a Pinot Noir grape. A white wine labeled Morey-Saint-Denis is made from the Chardonnay grape. Morey-Saint-Denis is a commune located in the Côte-d’ Or department of Eastern France.
This is the person or winery making the wine. So if you knew you were a big fan of Hirsch Winery on the Sonoma Coast of California, you could search for a wine based on the winery name. From there, you would want to get to know the different types of wine they produce. For example, there’s “Bohan Dillon,” a wine named for the road on which Hirsch Winery is located and that’s typically made from a young vine Pinot Noir. To simply say, “I want the Hirsch Pinot Noir” may not be enough information, because there are many different Pinot Noirs produced by Hirsch Winery to choose from. Two examples are the Bohan Dillon and the “San Andreas Fault” Estate Pinot Noir.
If you are just interested in trying or getting to know a wine from a specific area, then you can select your wine by region. For instance, you may want to try wine from Barolo, a town in Piedmont, Italy that, by law, only uses Nebbiolo grapes. Barolo is both a type of wine and a location, but you can deepen your knowledge beyond the broad region: There are also communes within Barolo that have become known for the wines they produce, for example, Castiglione Falletto. And you can go even further yet, as some Barolo vineyards have been classified as having “cru” status (based on the Burgundy classification model), for example, Cannubi. So have some fun here—get to know a region, then its communes, and finally, even specific vineyards you like best.
Alcohol content/ABV (Alcohol by Volume)
In my experience, it is rare that a guest will come to me specifically and say, “I want to drink a 12.5% ABV wine tonight,” but it has happened. Usually it happens when guests are trying to avoid wines with very high alcohol, because if you’re basing your consumption on a 5 oz glass of wine at 12% ABV serving size suggestion, and you don’t know a wine’s ABV, you could end up with more alcohol per serving. The risk of being over served on a ‘school night’ without realizing it is the real issue. If you don’t want to risk having a hangover the day after, then it’s prudent to check a label’s ABV and avoid drinking wines that are very high in alcohol, like a 15% Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sulfur Dioxide SO2
This query has come up more and more over the past few years: “Is there sulfur in my wine?” The technical answer is yes, there is always a good chance that any wine has sulfites, as it is a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation. But what buyers are really looking for when they ask this is a wine with no additional SO2—these wines are called “Sans Soufre,” which is French for “sulfur free.” Some wines will be labelled this way; for instance, Domaine Henri Milan, imported by Avant-Garde Wine & Spirits, has “Sans Soufre Ajoute Le Papillion Rouge” printed on the front label. Though sulfur dioxide has been accepted as a useful tool that acts as a preservative and protects wine from harmful bacteria, it can bother those who have asthma or a sulfite allergy. Producers are continuing to evolve their labels to make it easier for the consumer to identify wines that have no sulfur added. The natural wine importer Zev Rovine Selections has launched a very user-friendly website that lists the specific amount of SO2 in each bottle—a mostly minuscule number for natural wines.
Needless to say, wine labels aren’t exactly standardized, but understanding some of the features above can help clarify how to tell what’s inside any given bottle. Though there are many regions and many wine laws to keep in mind, most labels are set up so you can at least quickly identify where, geographically speaking, the specific wine is coming from. And here in the US, the labels are fairly straightforward—they typically show the wine’s producer, the vintage, the region of origin, and grape variety. But even here, there are exceptions—like California wines, which only have to have 85% of the grape varietal listed and only have to be 95% from the labeled vintage. (I’ll save that lesson for another post…)
So there is a lot to learn, and demystifying the wine label can indeed seem daunting, but I hope that the next time you find yourself puzzled by a label or in search of the perfect wine, you'll turn to these guidelines as a first step.
Taxonomy of a Wine Label
Here is an example of the breakdown of the label from a recent bottle I enjoyed—
Front LabelProducer: Bruder Dr. Becker
Grape: Scheurebe (A cross between Riesling & Silvaner, but may actually be a wild vine)
Traditionelle Flaschengarung = Traditional bottle fermentation
Kind of Wine: Scheurebe brut = grape and sparkling wine that is dry. (No more than 12 grams per litre of residual sugar)
Back LabelImporter: Savio Soares Selections
Producer: Bruder Dr. Becker
Kind of Wine: Deutscher Sekt = Sparkling wine made with exclusively German grapes
Product of Germany: Rheinhessen, Germany
Demeter Certification: Biodynamic certified grapes
Size: 750 ml
Does contain sulfites
First photo by Ted Cavanaugh
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