Now that you have invested a little interest in wine, learning more about it and trying new wines, it might be a great help to actually know what you are purchasing. Your local wine shop should not be something of great intimidation. After all, you are going there with the hopes of buying something that will bring you some enjoyment. But then, there you stand, in front of a shelf full of wine not knowing what to pick. Then you meander about the store to another full stock of wine. Other than perhaps picking out an eye-catching label of what promises to be something great, you really have no idea of what anything on the label means. After all the mental work that goes into just finding the bottle you want after debating and doubting, you're left in dire need of that first glass of wine when you arrive home.

To reduce your wine shopping anxiety, read through this article, which is going to help you to understand how to read some wine labels and become a more informed consumer of what type or style of wine you will purchase.

Wine Labels 101

The best way to narrow down your attention to just one section of the wine shop is to pick out a wine region you want to explore, giving you a better way to learn about different grapes, varying styles of wines and winemaking throughout the world without getting overwhelmed. Along the way, you will also learn about what grapes each region specializes in and then you can try the same grapes from different parts of the world and find what styles are unique or what you like the best.

Before the details about wine labels from different countries gets underway, it helps to learn a little bit about some basic information you will find on all or most labels.

Alcohol content - The average alcohol content wines usually contain is 12-14%, with the exception of Port, which averages 18%-19%. New market trends over the last few years have demanded wines with lower alcohol content (A discussion on this subject may soon be addressed in another article.) Alcohol production in wine is caused by the fermentation of sugars that later turn into alcohol. Most of you already knew that, but what determines a wine’s potential alcohol is the amount of sugar the grapes have upon harvest. It is also important for one to know that the acidity present in grapes has an indirect relationship on the development of sugars. So, the higher the alcohol, the lower the acidity and vice versa. Most wines do not dip below 10% alcohol. So if you like full-bodied wines with baked fruit nuances, the ones with higher alcohol may be more your style. If you like lighter-bodied wines with fresh fruit nuances and mouth-watering acidity, go for wines lower than 14.5% alcohol.

The Vintage Year - The year printed on a wine label indicates the year the grapes were harvested.

Now we begin with how to read a wine label from countries and regions around the world, starting with an easy one, California. (FYI: Officially, each state in the United States has at least one winery. Wine laws may be different in each state, but the concept of wine labels is similar.)

A Sample Label - Starting with a pretty basic California label, you'll see the alcohol content at "12.7%" in the fine print at the bottom. The vintage year is listed as "1973", that was the year the grapes were harvested. Any mention of a vineyard or company, like, "Chappellet Vineyard" represents the entity that produced the wine.

You see "Cabernet Sauvignon", this is the grape the wine is made from. Some reds may be a blend of more than two grapes. However, in order for a label to mention one grape on the front label from the region of Napa Valley, the wine must contain at least 75% of that specific grape and grapes from Napa Valley. It is not required for any other grapes to be listed, nor their percentage. The other 25% may also be sourced from outside said region; in this case, :"Napa Valley". There are hundreds if not thousands of specified wine regions in California (and the entire US). These are called AVA’s or American Viticultural Area.

Here is another, more detailed label:

Skipping over the vintage year and alcohol content, you can see that this wine is made by "Far Niente". Reading on the label is also; "Napa Valley" and "Oakville". ‘Napa Valley’ is the AVA, while "Oakville" is the sub-appellation, which lies within the Napa Valley. In order for the sub-appellation to be listed, the wine must contain 100% of grapes from that specific site. Some other labels may go into as much detail to list the specific vineyard the grapes are from.

Let's say "Cabernet Sauvignon" is listed on the label as well, signifying the main grape. By California law, the wine must contain a minimum of 75% of the varietal listed on the label. It is not a requirement for the others to be mentioned on the front or back labels.

You will also notice that it mentions, "Estate Bottled". This means that the wine was bottled at the winery. However, sometimes this does not indicate that the wine was grown, harvested, fermented and finished at the same address. This does not make it less of a wine. There are some vineyards without their own winery and some wineries without their own vineyards, so, they purchase fruit from growers of specific appellations. In general, with each detail listed as such on a label, the higher quality the wine is and more attention to detail was put into the wine.

For instance, you might see a bottle of wine with this label:

This wine may contain any white grapes from anywhere in California, but you would have no idea where the grapes are from or which grapes. The only information given here is the vintage and the alcohol percentage.

Now that you have the basics for a wine label from California (or from other states within the US), another term you might see on a label is "Reserve" or "Grand Cru" - In some other major wine-making countries in the world, these terms actually define a wine, how it is made and where. In the case of California or other states, it may only mean that it is a special wine made by the winery or one that might have been produced as a limited edition. It does not indicate anything specific, however, and may vary depending on who makes it.

On some labels, you may see, "Meritage" listed on the front. This is not a specific grape, however it is indicative that the wine is a blend of some or all of the following grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot. This is French terminology, and in order for this to be listed on a wine label, the winery has to pay for it. This signifies a special and oftentimes a wine, which may cost a bit more than others in its category.

Before this article closes out completely, it might be helpful to end with a small list of grapes you might find on California wine labels. As a beginner with wine, sometimes it is difficult to identify that what is listed on a label is actually a grape.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Malbec
  • Petit Verdot
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Syrah
  • Zinfandel (White Zinfandel is not a grape)
  • Chardonnay
  • Riesling
  • Viognier
  • Pinot Noir
  • Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio (they are the same grape)
  • Petite Sirah
  • Grenache
  • Semillon
  • Cinsault
  • Gamay
  • Carignan
  • Tempranillo

All of these are actually the name applied to the grape used to produce these wines.