Continued from Part 2 of Reading Wine Labels
There’s nothing like having to buy wine at the last minute to take to a friend’s house to cause a panic attack. No other consumable is put on the table in its original package.
At social gatherings, the wine label is like a blinking billboard telling your guests exactly what you think of them and of yourself.
So that piece of paper affixed to the front of the bottle is all you have to go on. In the quaint old days, merchants simply wrote on the label what was in the bottle.
Now packaging experts design labels that have “pick-up pull” like boxes of cereal and detergent.
The goal, though, isn’t to pick a bottle of wine that you like, but rather one that will impress your host and the other guests. So choose one that projects the image you want to cultivate.
Are you a chic minimalist? Then go for labels with lots of white space and block lettering.
A connoisseur? You’re better off with traditional script and the requisite crumbling chateau.
Here are more tips to help you buy a better bottle based on the wine label:
7. Bogus Front Label Terms
Terms such as reserve, proprietor’s reserve, cellar selection, vintner’s blend and private reserve aren’t defined or regulated in North America.
They can mean whatever the winemaker wants them to—even though the wine may not have received any special treatment and may not even be the producer’s best wine. For instance, Glen Ellen of California puts the word on every bottle it produces, even though most of them cost under $10.
In fact, the word “reserve” appears on 10% of U.S. wines. That’s a far stretch from the original meaning of the word which goes back to Bordeaux during the Second World War: some vintners had stashed away their wine for private consumption.
Most New World vintners today use reserve on only the top 10-20% of their production.
8. The Alcohol Content
Although you may be tempted to choose a wine that will immediately inoculate you against that tortuous first thirty minutes of dinner party chit chat, consider how alcohol affects the wine.
The percentage of alcohol by volume tells you whether a wine is full bodied (12% or higher) or more medium-to-light-bodied (8-11%). Lower-alcohol wines may contain some residual sugar and therefore be sweet, or at least off dry; whereas those at the higher end of the spectrum (13-15%) are often quite dry—unless they’re fortified sweet wines, such as port and sherry.
9. The Back Label
This is a very, very, very good wine and other meaningless bunk. The “romance copy” of most back labels is about as believable as a Harlequin novel: every vintage is spectacular, and every wine goes with chicken, meat, pasta and cheese.
California vintner Sean Thackeray scoffs at this nonsense on his back label which reads: “This red wine. It goes well with the sorts of things red wines go well with.”
The best advice is to skip the blurb and trust your own palate by experimenting with different dishes, something that’s ideally done by getting yourself invited to many dinner parties.
10. The Price
Yes, pricey wines can be very good, but it isn’t a guarantee of quality, and that also doesn’t mean everything under $15 is a vinous dumping ground. There’s a grape glut worldwide, which means wine prices have been coming down. (That’s why there’s Two-Buck Chuck.) Australian, Canadian and Chilean producers, in particular, make great wines in the $10-$15 range.
What’s your tip on how to read a wine label?