How to read a wine label
Wine expert Kathryn McWhirter decodes wine label jargon so you know what to look out for when choosing your next bottle.
All wines sold in the EU have to declare their alcohol level on the label. But there’s wriggle room of half a percentage point – so a wine labelled 12.5% could be 13% or 12%.
Outside Europe, labelling rules vary, so we may see changes after the Brexit transition period. For example, the USA has a tolerance of 1.5 (for wines under 14%) or 1 (for wines over). So in the USA, a wine labelled 12.5% could weigh in at nearly 14.
Yeast, alcohol, and grapes come as no surprise. But you might not be expecting sulphites, milk and egg products in your wine.
Sulphites are used as a preservative in almost all wines. In the EU and most other places, sulphites (or sulfites) must appear on the label – in the EU when there’s more than 10mg per litre, and most wines have more. Reds and high-acid dry whites are likely to contain the least.
Although animal products are used less and less in winemaking, some producers still use egg whites or casein (a milk protein) for ‘fining’ (removing cloudy ‘hazes’, softening red wines…). Since 2011 these must be mentioned on the label of wines sold in the EU if residues exceed 0.25mg per litre.
Otherwise, alcoholic drinks with more than 1.2% alcohol don’t need to list ingredients, including fish products (occasionally also used for fining).
It’s probably safe to assume that a silver, gold, platinum or trophy-winning wine is good, but there are many wine competitions in many countries, each with their own rules.
Some are judged by panels of winemakers, some by sommeliers, some by wine trade folk, some by punters… Even professional tasters sometimes disagree. Some competitions take a pure average, some allow discussion and consensus.
As a general rule, those run by professionals at national level give more reliable results than little local competitions.
This official Italian classification (as in Chianti Classico, Soave Classico…) reassuringly denotes the historic, central parts of wine regions, usually better, where winemakers must generally respect stricter rules. In Spanish, Clásico is unofficial, often part of a brand name.
A headache-inducing French term, meaning special vineyards (big or small), or the wine made in those vineyards.
Several French regions use the term cru, and significance varies. Some crus were classified in the 19th century and have barely changed since, some get regularly checked. As climate changes, ‘the vineyards most likely to ripen grapes well’ may need serious rethinking. Cru is a confusing indication of quality.
Beaujolais has 10 Crus, villages named on the label, such as Fleurie, Morgon and Saint-Amour. They reliably make richer wines than basic beaujolais.
The best chablis and burgundy is ranked Grand Cru, with Premier Cru one step down.
Top Alsace vineyards make Grand Cru. Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux calls its very top wines Premier Grand Cru Classé, cascading down to Premier Grand Cru, then Grand Cru.
Meanwhile, across the river, wines rated in 1855 as the most prestigious in the Médoc region of Bordeaux go from the best at Premier Cru down to Cinquième Cru (First to Fifth Growth), with Cru Bourgeois modestly bringing up the rear. Curiously, these Médoc crus apply to Château ‘brand’ rather than defined vineyards. There’s nothing to stop Third Growth Château X buying the neighbour’s vineyards and, so long as they’re in the same village, calling the combined wine Third Growth Château X.
Another headache. In 2011, the EU decided to replace all the previous denominations in member countries (Appellation Contrôlée, Denominação de Origem Controlada, Vin de Pays, etc) with the new terms Protected Designation of Origin, Denominazione di Origine Protetta (PDO, DOP, depending on the language) and Protected Geographical Indication, Indicación Geográfica Protegida (PGI/IGP…).
Luckily, they have to be written out in full on the label. Any expression with origem/origine equivalent is the higher ranked, while anything with geografica or géographique equivalent is a step down, usually a larger area with looser rules.
However, some countries, regions and producers were allowed to continue using the old, national terms, while some have added a higher category. Italy currently has 75 examples of Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita or DOCG, and Spain has Denominación de Origen Calificada e Garantita. Despite the implication, quality is not really guaranteed. It’s enough to drive one to drink…
German A level
The long, compound words on German wines can be mind-boggling for non-German-speakers. Many wines these days are trocken, dry. German law on wine sweetness, unlike in the rest of Europe, is based on balance between sweetness and acidity. Just as a spoonful of honey tastes less sweet taken with lemon juice, so the gentle sweetness of some trocken German wines is magically offset by their natural, high acidity.
Trockenbeerenauslese, however, is super-sweet. It means dry-berries-selection, and (expensive and delicious) is made from grapes left to raisin on the vines.
If you’re buying expensive German wine, the terms Grosse (or Erste) Lage indicate Germany’s great historic vineyard sites – they translate as Great (or First) Growth – or Grand Cru! Grosses Gewächs wines are the dry versions.
The Champenois could sue anyone outside their borders who calls their bottle-fermented sparkling wine ‘Champagne method’. Since 1994, fizzy wine makers outside Champagne have to label this time-consuming technique the ‘Traditional method’.
Grapes on the label
If a single variety is named on the label in Europe, at least 85% of the wine must be of that variety. If two varieties are named, it must be from only those two, and the predominant one must come first. Same goes in Australia and New Zealand.
At home in California or Chile, the minimum is 75%, but to sell as a single varietal in the EU it would have to be 85%.
Same goes for vintage – only 85/75% has to be from the declared vintage.
The USA was once the only country requiring a health warning on bottles of wine, highlighting dangers in pregnancy, when driving, operating machinery and more generally. Now French bottles warn about drinking in pregnancy.
Vieilles vignes, Viñas viejas, Vinhas velhas... Old vines give low yields and concentrated flavour. In Portugal and Spain old means really old, maybe 80 or 100 years. In France, 25 years is getting on a bit, although the French have a few super-old vineyards too.
Historically, this would have been a wine judged good enough to keep back to age for a while before sale.
In some countries, it has acquired a specific legal meaning, x months in oak, x months in bottle. In many (Australia, New Zealand, Chile…) it has no legal meaning, but will be a producer’s more expensive wine. That could mean it’s yummier, or that it was kept longer in oak than you might have liked.
In Italy, different regions regulate the time a Riserva must be aged, between two and five years. In Spain, Reserva reds age for three years, of which a minimum one year is in oak, but Spain also has Gran Reserva, minimum two years in oak and three in bottle.
A legal step up from basic. In France, bordeaux supérieur grapes can come from right across the huge Bordeaux region, but they must be a little riper than those for basic bordeaux, and grape yields must be a little smaller. In Italy, a lot of regions have a superiore level, likewise with more stringent rules than for the basic wine. Not always a huge improvement in the wine, however.
The Sicilian name for the muscat grape. Numerous grapes go by different names in different places. The tempranillo of Spain is called aragonês in southern Portugal and tinta roriz in northern Portugal. Syrah and shiraz are the same grape. Argentina’s malbec came from France, where it was and is known at the côt or the auxerrois, although astutely the French are beginning to put malbec on their labels.