They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but does the same apply to a wine label? Wine labels have a lot of information on them. Some of it is critical to understanding what is in the bottle, and some of it is nothing more than a swirling font and prestigious-looking logo. If you have struggled with how to read a wine label, we spoke to head of fine wine at Cult Wines, Lukasz Kolodziejczyk who outlines what you need to look for, and how you can tell the quality of its contents.
Brand name and producer
This is arguably the most important piece of information on a wine label, simply because a producer’s reputation will have a clear link to the quality of the wine they produce. Iconic producers with a well-established reputation can charge a higher price point based on this alone. Other producers position themselves as recognisable household brands, and their name provides familiarity and reassurance for buyers.
Wine name and grape variety
This helps to distinguish between the wines within a producer’s range. Some producers, particularly well-known everyday brands found on supermarket shelves, will simply use the grape variety such as ‘Chardonnay’ or ‘Merlot’. Others will give their wines specific names that help to tell a brand story or family history.
Note that the grape variety isn’t always stated on the label, and how many producers will use the region instead. However, this can be as broad as the region ‘South Australia’, which covers more than 50% of the wine made in the entire country, as opposed to a single vineyard. To get the highest quality wine, look out for specific destinations of where the grapes were grown.
The vintage conveys the year in which the grapes were harvested and can tell you a lot about the wine if you are familiar with vintage variations. In the event that there is no year on the label, or the term ‘NV’ or ‘non-vintage’ is present, it means that grapes from multiple vintages have been used to help create the wine. As a rule of thumb, non-vintage wines are usually ready for drinking on release, unlikely to improve with age, and cost less than vintage wines.
Premium French wines will usually display their classification as a matter of tradition. This is the wine body-approved mark of quality, based on the classification system applicable to the region the wine comes from. For example, the Saint Emilion Classification contains three levels – Premier Grand Cru Classe ‘A’, Premier Grand Cru Classe ‘B’ and Grand Cru Classe. In Burgundy, meanwhile, wines may fall under ‘grand cru’ or ‘premier cru’ status.
A wine’s alcohol by volume (ABV) can actually reveal a lot about the wine, although this information is usually displayed on the back of a bottle. Many wine regions in Europe only allow their highest quality wines to have a 13.5% ABV and above, while in America, some ABVs can be very high going up to 17%. Many high ABV wines are made from riper grapes and have more fruit forward flavours, which can give an indication of how alcoholic the wine may taste.
Other terms to look out for on a wine label
Estate-bottled wine: This means the wine was grown, produced and bottled on the one estate, and tend to be lower quality.
Reserve: This term might give a wine some added appeal, but it doesn’t mean anything official. That said, some smaller producers use it to indicate their top-tier wines.
Old vines: Or in French, ‘Vielles Vins’. Using grapes from older vines usually results in more concentrated flavours in a wine, but again, there are no rules to say exactly how old a vine must be in order for a producer to use this term on a label – they could range from 15 to 115 years!
With these basic terms, you’re in a good position to pick the right wine. Don’t just rely on the label, however attractive it may be – get used to looking at the details and you’ll quickly be making informed and appetising choices.