Saturday, 3 December 2011

Peeping wine: How to read a label

I know. I had said that this wine-investigative column should have been weekly, but as you certainly realised it is definitely going to be monthly!Well, you have waited we go!

When buying a bottle of wine, unless it is something we already know, our choice will normally be based mainly on our knowledge,on the shop assistant's advices or on the wine label.
But understanding the labels can be a struggle especially when you are in front of old world wines with their categories and appellations.
This post would like to help you in having a deeper understanding of the information we can get from the label.

Let's start with the information that are universally used.
On a wine label (no matter where is it from) you will always find name and address of the producer and bottler (if different), country of origin, bottle volume and alcohol content. Sometimes you can find a fantasy name given by the producer to the wine.
Vintage is optional only in case of bulk wine (the lesser category) from Europe.
Also we will often find the note "contains sulphites". This is compulsory in most countries when the wine contains more than 10 mg/l of Suplhur Dioxide (and unfortunately this can happen quite easily as the compound is regularly used as antibiotic and antioxidant during fermentation and bottling).

For sure,the easiest-reading labels are the New World ones that displays country and region of origin and grape variety (that in most cases will be present and least in an amount of 85% -75% for USA- of the wine) or blend.
They are straight forward. So when you are buying a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, there will be no space for doubts. An easy and clear label will tell you what you are buying and will be drinking.

Things get more difficult when choosing an Old World wine.
The reason being that even if there is an European common wine qualification, there are also, for each country, different classifications and most of the times on the label you don't find the grape varieties but the name of the appellation.
In terms of legal qualification in Italy we have: Vino da Tavola, IGT, DOC and DOCG being the latter the upper classification.
Vin de table, Vin de Pais, Vin delimite' de qualite' superieure and AOC in France (even though things are changing next year). France ha also sub-qualification systems that may even vary from region to region. Plus classification names are different again in Spain, Portugal and other European countries.
And this is not the only confusing factor.

 The main difficulty for a simple consumer is actually how to recognise a wine without knowing all the appellations names. Most of you will have heard about Chablis, Sancerre, Barolo, Rioja and Chianti, but how many do really know their grapes names? Unfortunately there is no solution to this especially for French wines. Their labels, in most cases, will not tell you which grape they are made of: you have to know them.
For Spanish and Italian is a bit different as very often you will find these information on the back label.

More confusion can come up when you read on the labels things like Classico, Riserva or Crianza.
These are legal definitions regarding the ageing process or the area of origin, not necessarily something connected with the quality of the wine.

In fine wines you can as well find names of the single vineyards or Crus (for the French); this means that the grapes are all coming from a specifically named and legally recognised vineyard.
Also sometimes you can find written on the label "old vines or vielles vignes" that should indicate that the grapes are coming from old vine plants, that normally are less vigorous and productive but can produce fruits with deeper and more complex flavours. Unfortunately there is no legal definition of the minimum age of the vine necessary to call them old, so this is a tricky definition.

Finally do never forget about checking the bottling information.
When the wine has been estate bottled it means that the producer has followed the whole process, from the vineyard until the moment the cork has closed the bottle and this is certainly the guarantee of a wine representing the winemaker's philosophy and normally also of a smaller size of the winery.
When the label says "bottled by..." it is because that company has bought the grapes from one or more grape growers and then just processed them. Not necessarily it has to be a bad thing, but I always tend to go for the first option.

As you can see reading a wine label can be as difficult as trying to understand hieroglyphics (and actually that could be easier sometimes). Sometimes even knowledgeable people can struggle with it.
So it is important to have a good memory of what we have drunk in the past and what we have read (maybe as well here!) and if this is not enough...well then ask the shop assistant!!