Idiosyncrasies of Wine Labels

Beyond the brand.

Idiosyncrasies of Wine

How’s this for a nightmare? You go into a wine store, and the bottles have no labels. It’s just shelves of green and brown bottles, and you have to hold many of them up to the light to see if they contain red or white. You might figure that Burgundy bottles, with sloping shoulders, are more likely to hold pinot noir and syrah, and there’s a better chance of getting sangiovese or cabernet if you buy a Bordeaux bottle, with its squarer shoulders. But there’s no certainty, and it’s no easier with white wines. Rosé is a safer bet. It’s bottled in clear glass because people often buy it by colour. Picking out sparkling wines is easy, but telling cava from prosecco is not. Price helps you identify champagne.

You know you’re going to pick a wine based mostly on the label. Whether we’re attracted to a quirky brand name or a picture of an animal, drawn to a sophisticated design or words such as “Château” and “Gran Reserva”, or we select wine by the producer, grape variety, and region of origin, it’s the label that guides us to the bottle. What’s on the surface isn’t everything, of course, but you can’t say it means absolutely nothing.

But wine labels contain a mix of information that’s variously accurate, sort of accurate, and of dubious value. Across the board, the only reliable information is the amount of wine in the bottle (usually 750 millilitres) and the address of the producer. (The actual identity of the producer might be concealed behind a brand.) As for the other information on a wine label, much of it is approximate. Although some labels show precise levels of alcohol (such as 12.8 per cent), most show it as a whole or half percentage, and wine laws allow some leeway in the stated level. In many countries, it must be within half a percent-age point either way, so wine labelled 13 per cent alcohol has between 12.5 per cent and 13.5 per cent.

Whether we’re attracted to a quirky brand name or a picture of an animal, it’s the label that guides us to the bottle.

Similarly, there’s wiggle room when it comes to grape variety, vintage, and region. Most countries have an 85 per cent rule: a wine must consist of at least 85 per cent of the variety on the label, made from grapes at least 85 per cent of which were grown in the stated region and harvested in the stated year. The United States has a 75 per cent rule. This means that a 2012 cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley could be made entirely from cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in Napa Valley and harvested in 2012. Alternatively, it could consist of up to 25 per cent of grapes that are not cabernet sauvignon, and up to 25 per cent of wine from grapes harvested from a different region in a different year.

Then there are ubiquitous words like “Reserve”, “Reserva”, and “Riserva”, and variants such as “Gran Reserva”. In some European countries, notably Spain and Italy, these are regulated terms and wines labelled with them must have minimum periods of aging (in barrel and sometimes in bottle) before being sold. But in most of the New World, “Reserve” and variations such as “Special Reserve” and “Proprietor’s Reserve” can be used indiscriminately. They are not indicators of age or quality, but are essentially marketing tools. An exception is Washington State, where members of the Wine Quality Alliance reined in the use of “Reserve” by limiting it to wines they make in small volumes to a maximum of the greater of 3,000 cases or 10 per cent of a winery’s production.

Many other terms are also unregulated. There’s no minimum age for “Old Vines”. They might be 30 or 100 years old, perhaps depending on the general age of vineyards in a given region. And wine “aged in oak” might have matured in oak barrels, but could alternatively have been in stainless steel tanks lined with oak planks, or simply have had oak chips added to it.

As for the description of the wine on the back label and suggested food pairings, they are the creation of marketing departments and need to be taken with a grain of salt (if there’s salt in a suggested pairing). Some producers have started making flavour and style part of the front label. Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel, from California, has a purple, velvet-textured label. In Australia, Wolf Blass has launched Blass, a flavour-defined line that includes Black Spice Shiraz.

There’s no shame in picking a wine because you’re attracted to the label. The art of understanding the wine label can be the journey of a lifetime. Bordeaux producers added “Château” to their names in the late 1800s and show coats of arms on their labels, all to convey an image of nobility, lineage, and tradition. It’s a marketing strategy as much as images of cute animals. And remember that the first “critter wine”, with a picture of a sheep on its label, was Château Mouton Rothschild.

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