Deciphering Wine Labels – 4 Easy Tips

BY Crushed
January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015 Deciphering Wine Labels – 4 Easy Tips

BY Crushed

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Intimidated by the sheer volume of options when you walk down the wine aisle at your local shop?  You’re not alone! Wine labels are meant to help you figure out what awesomeness awaits inside each bottle but between fancy designs and the variety of industry terms used by producers – they can often add to the confusion.

If you’re tired of picking up a bottle of whatever-is-on-sale at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods and feeling like the only thing you understand on the whole bottle is the price tag then we’ve got some good news – we’re here to help!  Here are some quick and easy tips to help you boil all that info down into something that makes sense.

Finding the Producer

Ridge 2So who made this thing anyway?  Should be easy to find, right?  Not so fast.  The producer is typically listed at the top center of the wine label of bottles made by North American producers. Makes sense. On European labels the producer is usually found down South on the bottom of the label. Ok, easy enough.  Now the hard part – producers often release second labels either to experiment or to distribute a lower budget version of their wines without taking away from the cache of their original label.  For these guys you’ll need to check the back of the label and sort through the fine print.

Tip: If you’re in love with one particular producer ask your local wine merchant who they might recommend that’s similar.  Odds are they’ll have a suggestion at a similar price point. Be adventurous – ask questions!

Basic Geography

sancerreTypically the next most important piece of information is where the producer sourced the grapes, or the Region.  Popular regions you may have heard of include Napa, Russian River, Rioja, Champagne and hundreds of others.  The impact that location has on weather and soil (the Terroir) plays a big part in the types of grapes that are grown and how they express themselves so pay attention to where your favorite wines are produced.  Many wine and grocery stores will actually organize their wines by region which makes it easy to explore a few different producers or varietals from within the same area.  One of our rules of thumb is to always try at least one wine we’ve never had before when shopping.

Tip: Don’t get stuck in a wine rut.  A great way to discover new wines is to “triangulate” your way to new label.  It’s easy – pick a bottle you like, note the three main characteristics of that wine (geography, price point, varietal) and find a new bottle that matches all three.  You’ll get to try something new that isn’t too far outside of your comfort zone.  When you’re feeling nutty, pick a bottle that only matches 2 out of the 3. 

Understand the Mix

The type of grape (or grapes) used in making a wine determine the varietal which is usually listed front and center on the label.  For a wine to carry a single varietal on it’s label it has to be made up of at least 75% of that grape.  There are a ton of great blends out there that may feature a few different types of blends so don’t worry if you see a couple listed – the winemaker chose that specific combination for a reason!  Give it a try, you’ll probably like it.

Tip: Some varietals are similar but carry different names from region to region.  For example if you like Chardonnay then you will probably love White Burgundy – it is, after all, the same grape only grown in the Burgundy region of France!


Keeping Time

Perhaps the most frequently misunderstood part of a label is the Vintage, or the year the grapes of a particular wine were harvested.  If you believe everything you see in the movies you’d think that all wines get better with time. Please trust us when we say that a lot of wine was meant to be enjoyed right away, not stored away gathering dust! There’s no universal rule but generally with bigger bolder reds, its ideal to buy something with a little age on it or to let your newer vintages relax for a year or two. With whites, the rule of thumb is to drink them young, but exceptions exist as with white burgundy (chardonnay grown in the Burgundy region of France) which age gorgeously. Some producers will actually include a little cheat sheet on the label with suggestions on aging.

Tip: Wine is meant to be enjoyed!  We hardly ever buy a bottle of wine that we wouldn’t open to celebrate any of life’s little victories but if you happen to nab something that you’d like to let age you can check out our tips and tricks for storing wine on any budget here.

Labels come in all shapes, sizes and formats – some more confusing than others.  With a little knowledge in your back pocket you should be able to pick out the key bits pretty quickly.  So learn, study, go forth and purchase some kick ass wines!  And if you’re feeling ready to graduate to some more advanced vino-vocabulary, stay tuned for a run down of common label lingo.