Stacie Hunt, of DuVin Wine and Spirits in West Hollywood, explains the best method for reading a wine label and finding the perfect wine. Each wine is an individual. It shows its individuality from its background, just like us: where it was born, raised, educated, with whom we hung out and where we hung out; and of course, how we were handled by others. All of this influences the grape and the resulting wine. All this is reflected on the label.
The French, have coined a word that represents this "background check." Terroir, which means "dirt," tells all that could possibly happen to those grapes: the type of soil (or foundation of their home), indicating the richness (not necessarily the best for grapes) or the poorness (a struggle makes for character); the weather (are they delicate or hardy); the amount of sunny days and which way they tilted their leaves to the sun.
The wine label can tell what the grape is, where it came from and how much of a specific grape is in the bottle. This detail can range from a general location, "California," to a more detail reference -- where in California, what region, what vineyard location and literally which row and vine number within that vineyard. (Think of a vineyard as a neighborhood, within a state, region or country.)
Decoding a wine label can make us more savvy and multiply our pleasure with the wines we select.
Origin: Every bottle of wine has an Appellation of Origin. This tells where the vineyard is located in the world.
In France: AOC - Apellation Controlee
In Italy: DOC - Denominazione della Origine
In Spain: DO - Denominacion de Origin
In USA: AVA - American Viticultural Area
Most global regulations require 75% of the grapes to come from that "area" and up to 15% from other areas.
Name of the Wine: This could be the grape varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon); or a fanciful or proprietary name like "Vin Cigare," for fun or creativity purposes. It could also be the name of a virtual winery or even a retail or hotel or restaurant name, in which case the estabishment has contracted with a vineyard or winery to create a "branded" wine.
Vintage: This is the year the grapes were harvested, not bottled. For some wines, they may be harvested this year and bottled years later, depending on their style. White wines generally should be young in vintage, no more than four years old. The exception comes in French and German wines, which are noted for their longevity.
Grape Variety: This tells us the specific grape (i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon) that the wine is made from. The exception is in French, Spanish and Italian wines, where the varietal may not be listed, since each of these countries have enacted laws for which grapes can be included in which wines, based on their region. So, it helps to bone up on the regions and which grapes are prevalent there.
Ripe and Ready: This applies mainly to Germany and Austria, where they rank wines by a ripeness or sweetness quotient. In Germany, the lowest ripeness is called Kabinett. The highest (and most expensive) is called QmP. The label of a dry German wine will say "trocken." Other wines will say halbtrocken (semi-dry) to spatlese, meaning late harvested -- the richest, ripest and sweetest. If you see eiswein (ice wine) on the label, you can assume this is rich, syrupy tasting and an amazing dessert wine.
Bottling: "Estate bottled" indicates that the grapes and resulting wine were grown, harvested and made at the location of the vineyard. If a bottle doesn't say that, the grapes or grape juice could have come from another location to a bottling facility. In that case, it will say "bottled at" or "produced and bottled" Most quality wines are "estate bottled."
Other Information: A French wine may list the location status of the vineyard or region with the words "Grand Cru" (the highest) or "1er Cru," meaning "Premier Cru" (second highest) or "Cru Bourgeois," the local or village wine.
Italy may list IGT here, which means that the wine is not made according to the old regulations of grape content, but is made from grapes grown in this area.
The Back Label: This is the area where various warnings are posted (such as the Surgeon General's warning on American-made wines); the alcohol content is here; information on sulphites (if there are more than 10 parts per million); the bottle size as well as the importer's name.
Increasingly, the back label has become the creative space for a few words from the winemaker, discussing the effort and passion that went into the wine and even what it will pair best with in terms of foods. Some winemakers will also use the back label to list the blends and percentages, as well as the name of the different grape varietals.
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