Label Gazing: How to Read a Wine Label

The hosts of CTV’s The Social and I had lots of fun decoding wine labels to find the secret info you can use to buy better wine.

Admit it. You’ve probably bought a wine based on nothing more than a beautiful label.


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Presentation is a big thing when it comes to wine. When I’m picking out a bottle, I look for a pretty label and pay attention to the name of the wine but that’s about it. Is the aesthetic of the label usually indicative of the taste?

Not at all, however, most people do judge a wine by its label: about 80% of wine bought is based solely on the label. You can try on a dress, flip through a book—but there’s no way to sample a wine before buying it. (Not legally, at least.)

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.

If you think about it, no other consumable is put on the table in its original package so presentation really is a big deal.




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Gérard Bertrand Côte des Roses Rosé
Languedoc, Midi A.P., France






Let’s go through the info that’s being relayed on the label, starting at the top. The first thing is typically the producer’s name. What does that tell us about what’s in the bottle?

· Is this a reputable producer? Domaine MacLean has been on the market for almost 20 years ;)

· Lainey, I’m going to have you try the Saint Clair Sauvignon Blanc.

· This is a very reputable winery from New Zealand. Starting to remember key names helps, because when you see a new wine from that producer you’ll be more confident in trying it.






Saint Clair Family Estate Sauvignon Blanc
Marlborough, New Zealand




Also, research studies and testing has shown that when there’s a lot of white space on the label, we perceive the wine as more premium, like this one. I’ve also brought 2 roses from Gerard Bertrand 2 roses. Look how beautiful the packaging is with the carved glass.



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.

Be warned that most joint ventures between celebrity vintners are just an excuse to jack the price, rather than produce doubly good wine—with a few exceptions, such as Opus One and Sena.


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Montecillo Winery Reserva Tempranillo 2012
Rioja DOC, Spain






2. The Wine Name

What about the name of the wine? Sometimes they’re funny or gimmicky. What does the name of the wine tell us?

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.






Lenz Moser Prestige Grüner Veltliner
Niederösterreich, Austria




Don’t worry, you can still choose a German wine since loads of Old World winemakers are now using trendy New World monikers. Try the German wine Bend in the River. 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.

Or try the new brand of wine snobbery which is to take pot shots at old wine snobbery. Wines named Meat Market Red, Fat Bastard, Space Shuttle White, Love Goat Blush, Good Ordinary Claret, Plonque and Rude Boy Chardonnay are created for this sole purpose. One British supermarket has even created a line called “Great with Chicken” “Great with Pizza & Pasta” and “Great with Curry.” There’s even one called “Great with Friends”—which is should concern those who actually to stop to think about it.





Louis M. Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
Sonoma County, California, United States





3. The Wine Region

I don’t know all that much about wine labels but one thing I do pay attention to is the region. For example, I know there’s a specific region in Portugal that I like so I often look for it when I’m picking out a bottle. But what does the region actually tell us about the wine inside?

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.



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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.

What do I get to try?

Marci, I know you like sparkling so I’m going to have you try La Marca Prosecco. This sparkling wine from Italy had DOC on the label which stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata.

On French wines you’ll see AOC and Canadian VQA etc. This is a classification system that has laws behind it in terms of which grapes can be used, winemaking methods and so on. It doesn’t guarantee you a good bottle, but it does guarantee that you’re getting a wine from a certain place that followed long established rules for which grapes and methods work best there.

This is a crisp, mouth-watering bubbly that’s just $13, an excellent bargain alternative to Champagne.

The other Spanish wine we have here is a DOCA, a higher tier and the Australian Cab is an example from a warm climate.



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La Marca Prosecco
Veneto D.O.C., Italy






I noticed your label had NAT written on it. What does that mean?

Nothing at all: I made it up. NAT is the quality designation meaning I approve this wine!

Most European countries have quality designations for wines that meet certain standards—think of it as the difference between Prada and a knock-off. In France, the system is called Appellation d’Origine Controllé (AOC), and Spain, Italy, Portugal and Germany also classify their wines with similar methods. In Canada, we have the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) and the U.S. has its specified American Viticultural Areas (AVA).


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When it comes to wine, there are so many fancy terms that I don’t really comprehend. Words like reserve and vintner’s selection. Are those things you want to pay attention to when you’re picking out a bottle?

Not really. They basically mean this is a very, very, very good wine and other meaningless bunk. Terms such as reserve, proprietor’s reserve, cellar selection, vintner’s blend and private reserve aren’t defined or regulated in North America.





Fonseca Porto Bin 27
Douro Valley, Portugal





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, 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.


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Alvear Fino
Montilla-Moriles D.O., Spain






Natalie, come on over to us now so we can chat grapes because the varietal can be a bit confusing.

Varietal is a fancy way of saying for the type of grape, whether it’s just one or a blend.

Labels that name grapes, such as chardonnay and pinot noir, aren’t necessarily better than ones that don’t, but they do help you to find the type of wine you like.

In some regions, laws require a certain percentage of that grape to be in the wine. In California, wines labelled as merlot must have at least 75% of that grape in the bottle. But in Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot are usually blended to produce the final wine, though they’re not specified on the label. And in the New World, some wines are just labelled with proprietary names such as Opus One, Dominus and Pinnacle.


wine label art chateau st michelle


Another common term is vintage meaning the year the wine was made. But if we’re looking at a label, what would that tell us about how good the wine is?

Don’t ask a wine writer about her vintage, though her wine, sure (young and vibrant, but will age well)

Vintage, or the year the wine was made, makes a big difference in cool climates: the harvest can be glorious one year, and a bitter disappointment the next. You don’t have to memorize the whole vintage chart, but if you have a favourite region, it helps to be familiar with its most recent vintages.

The Bordeaux 2015 vintage, for example, was spectacular, whereas the 2013 vintage was disappointing. Fortunately, in hotter climates things are simpler: they don’t have much variation in their weather, and most years produce ripe wines. Still, knowing the year will tell you old the wine is and how long a life it has left.






Gérard Bertrand Hampton Water Rosé
Languedoc A.C., France





What will I be sipping today?

Cynthia I’m having you try the Louis M Martini Sonoma county Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a full-bodied Cabernet from California with aromas of dark fruit and toasty oak. You’ll note that the grape Cabernet is on the label. In California that means that must have at least 75% of that grape in the bottle.

The other wine we have here is the Chateau Timberlay Bordeaux Superior AOC 2015. In Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot are usually blended to produce the final wine, though they’re not specified on the label.

As well, this was a strong vintage for both Sonoma and Bordeaux, so you’ll get better wines for your money in those years.





Jim Barry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon
Coonawarra, South Australia, Australia





I’m a fan of sweet wine but I have no idea how to tell what I’ll like so I always stick with the same brand to avoid risk! So often when I try something new I don’t end up liking it and have to use the bottle for cooking! How can I figure out the alcohol and sugar content and what it means?

My label has 13% alcohol is extra-dry, like my humour.

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.






Chateau Timberlay Bordeaux Superieur Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon
Bordeaux A.O.C., France





I’ve been waiting for my turn to taste! What do we have here?

Mel, I’d like you to try the Alvear Fino Montilla-Morilles. This is a fortified wine but it’s dry. Often you’ll see sugar codes on the liquor store shelves like XD (extra dry) and so on. This lovely wine has a nutty aroma and a long finish.

We also have an Austrian wine that has much lower alcohol than the Alvear, and the port is the highest of all in both alcohol and sugar content.


Continue to Part 1 of Reading Wine Labels



Posted with permission of CTV





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