Buying wine can be a paralyzing challenge. Facing a wall of unfamiliar bottles can frustrate even the most worldly consumer.
Those bottles have labels, of course, often with loads of information about the character and nature of the wine within. But the more detail they offer to knowledgeable wine consumers, the more baffling they seem to the uninitiated.
To cut through the confusion, some wineries simply furnish fewer facts. These wines — often hugely popular ones like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and 19 Crimes — rely on brand names and marketing to build an audience. For dedicated wine lovers, though, the facts are crucial, even if it takes some education to decode a label.
Every winery does things a little differently. Some wine cultures, particularly in the Old World, emphasize the place the grapes were grown rather than the variety of grapes in the wine. Sound historical tradition guides that position, though some regions permit or even require the grape variety on the label. And in the New World, where labels routinely identify the grapes, some of the highest-esteemed wines don’t break down their blends for consumers.
Should there be a better, more consistent system for labeling wine? That might make life easier. But wine historically has been largely a local expression, with customs and traditions arising in inconsistent and sometime peculiar ways. The beauty of wine — and, arguably, of wine labels — is in the distinctions and differences.
Some of what you see on labels will seem obvious: All ought to list the name of the producer, where the grapes were grown and the vintage — that is, the year the grapes were harvested.
But even here you will have exceptions. Not all wines are vintage wines. Champagnes are frequently blends of multiple vintages, as are some other wines, like tawny port and even the occasional red or white. And some inexpensive wines may be what the industry calls “bulk wines,” in which the grapes were grown and vinified into wine in one country, then shipped in bulk to another to be bottled.
Often the vintage is consigned to a neck label, or put around back. Why? It saves on the expense of reprinting labels each year. Doesn’t the alcohol-by-volume listing pose the same problem? Well, most legal entities allow just enough wiggle room that producers can get away with not recalculating that figure each year.
What follows is a key to interpreting some common types of wine labels. I’ve chosen some of the most confusing ones, and some of the simplest. The best advice: When in doubt, ask your wine merchant, whose job it is to direct you to the best bottle for any occasion.
Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru Les Gruenchers
This is a classic label for a Burgundy, one of the most esteemed French wine regions and also one of the most complicated. It comes complete with a simplified provincial coat of arms, vines laden with grapes and an old Gothic font used for the region, Chambolle-Musigny.
1. Ghislaine Barthod is the producer of the wine—A more old-fashioned label might have rendered the name in fine print. The increased emphasis here is a nod to the commercial importance of the producer today.
2. Chambolle-Musigny—The region in which the grapes were grown, which in classic French style is displayed most prominently.
3. Premier Cru Les Gruenchers—In the Burgundian hierarchy, vineyards are rated on their potential to make distinctive wines. At the top are the grand crus, vineyards so distinctive as to warrant their own appellation. Just underneath are the premier crus, prestigious in their own right but always listed with the region in which they reside. This indicates that the grapes came from Les Gruenchers, a premier cru vineyard within the Chambolle-Musigny region.
4. Appellation Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Controlée—An appellation is a legally defined and protected wine-growing area. This line is the official notice that the wine meets the requirements for using the appellation, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru, on the label. Many French labels use either “premier cru” or “1er cru.” The French term Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée may be used interchangeably with the European Union term, Appellation d’Origine Protégée.
5. Mis en bouteilles par—French for “bottled by.”
6. Propriétaire-Récoltante—Indicates that Barthod is both the proprietor of the estate and the grape grower, or récoltante.
7. 750 ML — 13% alc./vol—Indicates that the bottle contains 750 milliliters, the standard size of a single bottle, and that the wine is 13% alcohol. Wines can range from around 7% for a sweet wine, in which all the grape sugar is not fermented into alcohol, to 20% for a wine fortified with spirits, like port. But most dry wines today range from roughly 11.5% to 15.5%.
Château Simone Palette Rosé
Here is another traditional French label, from the small appellation of Palette, in Provence. It, too, has a coat of arms and depictions of grapes. But Palette is a simpler region than Burgundy, with only a handful of producers and without the hierarchy of vineyards and other distinctions, so the label needn’t offer as much information.
1. Château Simone—The name of the producer, in a kind of precursor to an art nouveau font, is superimposed over a rendering of the chateau and its vineyards.
2. Palette, Appellation Palette Contrôlée—The official notice of the appellation, is given pride of place at the top of the label.
3. Mis en Bouteille au Château—This goes one better than a simple “mis en bouteille” by specifying where the wine was bottled, at the place the wine was made.
4. Rougier, Propriétaire, Meyreuil (B. du R.) France Propriétaire—Denotes the owner of the winery. Rougier is the surname of the family that owns Château Simone; Meyreuil is the commune in Provence where it is situated.
Domaine Zind Humbrecht Alsace Rangen Clos Saint Urbain Riesling 2018
Alsace does things a little differently than the rest of France. For many years France and Germany fought to rule this region and, as in German-speaking wine cultures, the label lists the grape variety, riesling. Alsace has also identified vineyards with the potential to make exceptional wines, which it designates grand crus. Beyond the legal requirements, individual estates may decorate the label and add discretionary information.
1. Domaine Zind Humbrecht Domaine—Designates the name of the producer, Zind Humbrecht. “Domaine” suggests that the producer grew the grapes rather than buying them.
2. Alsace Grand Cru Rangen—The region, Alsace, and the vineyard, Rangen, which has been designated a grand cru. Just underneath is a year, 1296, and a crest with grapes and the initials I.H., taken from a carved stone found years ago in a vineyard by the Humbrecht family. The winemakers attribute the crest to an ancestor, Isadore Humbrecht.
3. Clos Saint Urbain—A “clos” is an enclosed vineyard. This clos is named for a 16th-century chapel devoted to Saint Urbain that sits within the vineyard.
4. Rangen de Thann—The Rangen vineyard, the southernmost grand cru in Alsace, stretches between two villages, Thann and Vieux Thann. The Clos Saint Urbain portion is in Thann, which the Humbrecht family believes is the most interesting part of the vineyard, hence Rangen de Thann.
5. Appellation Alsace Grand Cru Contrôlée—The official designation that the wine meets the requirements of the appellation.
6. Riesling—The wine is made entirely of this white grape.
7. Indice—This is a proprietary code used by Zind Humbrecht to indicate the wine’s level of sweetness, with Indice 1 the driest and Indice 5 the richest and sweetest. It will be filled in depending on the vintage.
8. Olivier et Margaret Humbrecht—The current proprietors.
9. Contains sulfites—Sulfites are compounds that both occur naturally in fermented grape juice, and are added in the form of sulfur dioxide, an almost universally used preservative. This label is mandatory for wines in which the sulfite level is more than 10 parts per million. This includes virtually all wines, whether sulfur dioxide is added or not.
10. L 24 R—A proprietary code for labeling, lot number or bottling date.
Willi Schaefer Mosel Graacher Domprobst Riesling Auslese 2016
This typifies an old-fashioned German wine label, full of essential information that novices will find mystifying, perhaps mitigated by the image of a kindly monk raising a glass. It is adorned by the conventional old motifs of a coat of arms, on the barrel, and grape bunches.
1. Willi Schaefer—The name of the estate, in a German Gothic font. Its address is just underneath.
2. Mosel—The region in which the wine is made, the Mosel Valley in western Germany.
3. Graacher Domprobst—Domprobst is the name of the vineyard, situated in the village of Graach.
4. Riesling Auslese—Riesling is the grape; auslese indicates that the grapes were ultraripe when harvested, and usually suggests a very sweet wine, unless you see the phrase “auslese trocken,” a rare designation for a dry wine made from ultraripe grapes.
5. 2016—The vintage.
6. Prädikatswein—The Prädikat system, often used in Germany and occasionally in Austria, evaluates grapes according to six ripeness levels when harvested, including auslese. These designations are generally used for sweet wines, but, depending on the region, may also be used for dry. A dry wine may be labeled Prädikatswein without the ripeness designation.
7. Gutsabfüllung—A German term noting that the wine was bottled on the grounds of the winery.
8. VDP Grosse Lage—VDP is a German association of leading growers. It awards the term “grosse lage” to the best vineyard sites. Not to be confused with the maddeningly similar “grosselage,” which simply indicates a collection of mediocre vineyards with supposedly similar characteristics.
9. L A.P.Nr. 2 583 154 14 16—A mandated code for tracing the bottle, should any problems arise.
Monteraponi Chianti Classico
As with French wine, Italian labeling tends to emphasize place rather than grapes. So you will have to look somewhere other than this label to learn that this wine is 95% sangiovese and 5% canaiolo. Vineyards and crests are popular with Italian label designers, too. The clean lines make this label easy to read.
1. Monteraponi—The name of the estate.
2. Chianti Classico—The appellation in which the grapes were grown. Chianti Classico is the historic heart of the greater Chianti region.
3. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita—The official indication that this wine meets the standards of the appellation. DOCG is the highest Italian quality category, awarded only to certain appellations. The European Union designation Denominazione di Origine Protetta may be used interchangeably.
4. Integralmente prodotte e imbottigliato da Azienda Agricola Monteraponi di Braganti & C— Wholly produced and bottled by the Monteraponi wine estate. Braganti is the surname of the proprietors.
5. Radda in Chianti - Siena - Italia—The estate is situated in the town of Radda in Chianti, in the province of Siena.
6. Contiene Solfiti—Contains sulfites.
7. LN.01.16—Code for the lot number or bottling date.
Bartolo Mascarello Barbera d’Alba 2017
Bartolo Mascarello is one of the most traditional estates in Italy, yet this label is clean and modern, centered on a painting by Bartolo Mascarello, who died in 2005. (You can find a crest on a bottle of Bartolo Mascarello Barolo.) In the Piedmont region of Italy, many wines, including barbera, dolcetto and others, use the name of the grape as part of the appellation, a useful feature when multiple grapes are grown in a particular place.
1. Bartolo Mascarello—The name of the estate.
2. Barbera d’Alba—Made from barbera grapes grown in the Alba region.
3. Denominazione di Origine Controllata—The official indication that the wine meets the requirements of the appellation. DOC is not as high a classification as DOCG, which would be awarded to an appellation as a whole, not to an individual wine. The European Union term Denominazione di Origine Protetta may be used instead.
4. Barolo - Italia— The winery is in the town of Barolo.
Mayacamas Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
An old-school California wine label, notably different from European labels in emphasizing grape variety over place. The name Mayacamas is said to mean “howl of the mountain lion” in the language of the Wappo, the original inhabitants of this part of Northern California, and the dancing lions within the stylized “M,” surrounded by vines, pay homage to that image.
1. Mayacamas—The producer, named for the mountain range that divides Napa and Sonoma counties.
2. Cabernet Sauvignon—The predominant grape. By California law, a wine with 75% or more of a particular grape can use the name of the grape to identify the wine.
3. Mt. Veeder - Napa Valley—Mount Veeder is a sub-appellation — an American Viticultural Area, in domestic wine parlance — within the larger Napa Valley appellation.
4. Produced and bottled by Mayacamas Vineyards—Indicates that the winery crushed, fermented and bottled at least 75% of the wine, but does not suggest that the winery grew all the grapes. The phrase “estate bottled” would indicate that a winery grew all the grapes and produced the wine.
5. Alcohol 14 1/4% —A wonderfully old-fashioned rendering, forgoing the decimal equivalent.
Domaine Boussey Volnay Premier Cru Les Taillepieds 2017
Like the label on the Ghislaine Barthod Chambolle-Musigny, this Burgundy label includes all the pertinent information, yet it is presented without the traditional decorative touches, and uses a cleaner, simpler typeface.
1. Domaine Boussey Laurent & Karen (proprietaries-récoltants)— Laurent and Karen Boussey are the proprietors and the grape growers.
2. Volnay 1er Cru Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée—The official appellation. The grapes were grown in a premier cru vineyard in the village of Volnay.
3. Les Taillepieds—The name of the vineyard.
4. Grand Vin de Bourgogne—A meaningless but compulsory indication that the wine is from Burgundy. It could also read simply Vin de Bourgogne.
5. Mis en Bouteille au domaine etc.—Bottled at the estate, along with other information.
Weiser-Kunstler Mosel Steffensberg 2018
Unlike the busy Mosel label of Willi Schaefer, this one has been streamlined, offering only some basic information: the vineyard site, Steffensberg, in the Mosel region, the vintage and the name of the producer, Weiser-Kunstler. The striking font, ITC Willow, is meant to evoke the era of 1895 to 1920, said Alexandra Kunstler, a proprietor. Rather than shields or grapes, the label uses small images of owls and a butterfly. The owl, Kunstler said, comes from the name of her partner, Konstantin Weiser, whose surname means “wise.” The butterfly suggests life and vibrancy. All of the formal, required information has been offloaded to the back label so that the front can serve as a decorative enticement.
1. Weiser-Künstler—The name of the estate. Note that the ITC Willow typeface doesn’t permit an umlaut, which represents a “ue” sound, so an “e” has been inserted into the “u” of Künstler.
2. Mosel—The wine comes from the Mosel region.
3. Steffensberg— The name of the vineyard.
Steffensberg back label
1. Weiser-Künstler—The producer.
2. Mosel—The region.
3. Enkircher Steffensberg—The vineyard, Steffensberg, in the town of Enkirch.
4. Riesling 2018 trocken—The grape and the vintage. Trocken means the wine is dry.
5. Erzeugerabfüllung—Bottled by the producer.
6. D-56841 Traben-Trarbach—The estate is in the town of Traben-Trarbach.
7. Vom Boden—The name of the importer, in an old Gothic font.
8. Government Warning—This is required on all bottles of wine sold in the United States.
Leitz Eins-Zwei-Dry Rheingau Riesling Dry
This is an entry-level riesling that comes from different parts of the Rheingau region and so does not have a vineyard designation. Because the pertinent information is simpler, it lends itself to the equivalent of a brand name, Eins-Zwei-Dry, rather than myriad facts. The pun, Dry for drei, emphasizes that this is not a sweet wine. It is all superimposed over a “3” in case you did not know that eins, zwei, drei is German for one, two, three. The brand is most prominent, though it is the numeral that dominates.
1. Leitz—The producer.
2. Eins Zwei Dry—The brand.
3. Rheingau—The region in which the grapes are grown
4. Riesling—The grape.
5. Dry—The wine is not sweet.
The Prisoner Napa Valley Red Wine 2018
This is pure brand, and one of the most popular wines in its class. The label is dominated by the unsettling image of a hooded, shackled prisoner, along with the printed name. A few sparse facts have been consigned to the back label. Even there, the constituent grapes are not listed. Wines like this are aimed at an audience that may love the wine, or the brand, but is not curious about its origin and production.
1. Napa Valley—The region where the grapes are grown.
2. Red Wine—In case you were wondering.
3. Bottled By—This simply indicates that the Prisoner Wine Company bottled the wine. Quite possibly, it did not grow the grapes or even make the wine.
Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Pagliaro 2012
Some labels are highly idiosyncratic. This one comes from the Montefalco region of Umbria, and is the polar opposite of the Prisoner’s. It offers information far beyond what is required, presented in a multitude of typefaces, some of which resemble informal handwriting. Some parts are in Italian only; others are translated into English.
1. Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea Vignaiolo in Montefalco—Paolo Bea is the name of the estate; Antica Azienda Agricola denotes that it’s an old wine estate; Vignaiolo in’Montefalco means winemaker in Montefalco.
2. Montefalco Sagrantino—The name of the appellation. This, too, like Barbera d’Alba, names the grape, sagrantino, and the place, Montefalco.
3. Secco — Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita Secco—Means the wine is dry, while D.O.C.G. is the highest classification for an appellation in Italy.
4. Pagliaro The name of the vineyard, indicating that all the grapes come from this place. It’s given the most prominent place on the label.
5. Vendemmia 2012—The vintage or harvest.
6. Metereolgia etc.—This section includes much information, about the weather (a dry, hot summer); the grapes; the fermentation (only with native yeast); the maceration (37 days with skins and seeds, and without temperature control); the processing (16 months in stainless steel vats, 44 months in large barrels); recommendations for serving and production totals.
7. Contiene 77 mg/l —This indicates about 77 milligrams per liter of sulfites. The legal maximum level for sulfites in wine in the United States is 350 parts per million, or roughly 350 milligrams per liter.
8. Nel rispetto dei reciproci—A warning to wine publications not to expect to receive samples.
9. Non disperdere—Another warning, to consumers: Don’t litter.
10. Integralmente produtto e imbottigliato all’origine—Produced and bottled at the estate by Paolo Bea.