Label Gazing: How to Read a Wine Label

wine label art chateau st michelleAdmit it. You’ve probably bought a wine based on nothing more than a beautiful label.

Most of us have been lured at least once by a wind-swept name like Jagged Peak scripted across a postage-size painting of a rustic hillside.

Drink the wine, live the life.

Not quite. After several disappointments, I started looking for austere labels as a sign of purity: since the winemakers had obviously spent no money on marketing, I reasoned, they must have invested in the fruit.

But that didn’t work either: I ended up drinking bad wine in ugly bottles with unpronounceable names.

Eventually, I realized that there are a number of clues on the label that can help you increase your odds of buying a better bottle. Here are the first of my top 10 tips to reading a wine label (and increasing your chances of buying a better wine):

1. The Producer Name

The guy or gal who makes the juice is important—think about your reaction when Uncle George declares he’s just made his latest batch of Thompson Seedless blush for your pleasure.

Get to know a few great producers from your favourite regions so you always have something from which to choose.

Be warned that many joint ventures between celebrity vintners can be just an excuse to jack the price, rather than produce doubly good wine—but there are exceptions, such as Opus One and Sena.

2. The Wine Name

First, give yourself a break and pick a wine whose name you can pronounce without coughing to disguise the attempt. What you want to avoid are tongue-twisters like Johannishof Rüdesheimer Berg Rottland Riesling Spätlese. This isn’t to say that wines with long names are not good, many of them are great. But if you’re just starting out and want a few good, simple choices, keep it short.

Don’t worry, you can still choose a German wine since loads of Old World winemakers are now using trendy New World monikers: Devil’s Rock, Cuckoo Hill, Winter Hill, Deer Leap, Spice Trail, Riveroute and Perth Pink are from France, Hungary and Spain. Fortunately, these anglo-friendly names are also decent wines.

Some wine names poke fun at snobbery: Meat Market Red, Fat Bastard, Space Shuttle White, Love Goat Blush, Good Ordinary Claret, Plonque and Rude Boy Chardonnay.

One British supermarket has even created a line called “Great with Chicken” “Great with Pizza & Pasta.” There’s even one called “Great with Friends”—which should concern those who actually stop to think about it.

It’s hit and miss when it comes to these gimmicky names, but generally I find that they’re stronger on marketing than on taste.

3. The Wine Region

Are you cool or hot? Cool climates such as France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada generally make wines that balance fruit flavours and acidity. They also grow grapes such as pinot noir and riesling, which produce elegant, spicy, restrained wines.

Warmer climates such as California, Chile and Australia focus on bigger, bolder wines, such as shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. And yes, there are cool regions within those countries, but we’re generalizing here.

So generally, the more specific the place name, the better. When a region is more narrowly defined, the quality guidelines and laws are, and it’s less likely that grapes from good and poor vineyards will be blended.

For example, a wine from Napa Valley is usually better than one simply labelled as California.

Continue to Part 1 of Reading Wine Labels

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