Trying to decide between a few bottles, but not quite sure what the differences are? Sometimes wine labels seem like they’re written in a different language because, well, often times, they are. But with these easy steps, your friends will be handing you the wine list in no time!
First thing’s first – be able to distinguish between the producer, varietal, region and vintage. For some great tips on making heads or tails of this basic information, check out our post on deciphering wine labels. Once you’ve got the basics sorted, look for any special characteristics that separates one wine from another.
There are thousands of factors that make each wine unique, so it’s hard to tell if the words on the label translate to your particular taste and preference. Labels can’t tell you everything but they do carry more information than the typical wine drinker may notice. At the very least, understanding some of this label jargon will make it easier to impress your next dinner guest when you pour out an Old Vine Estate Blend. Sounds impressive doesn’t it? Yes, yes it does.
Here’s our cheat sheet to some of the more common descriptors (aka ‘wine lingo’) used on wine labels to call out unique qualities (in no particular order):
- Blend – Blends are back! Wine blends seem to have gotten a bad name among casual wine lovers. People don’t realize that in California, a wine only needs to consist of 75% or more of a single grape in order to be labeled as that varietal. In other words, that zinfandel that you love so much could very well be a mix of 80% zinfandel, 10% petite sirah and 10% grenache! Blends are like cooking – each grape brings a different layer of spice (or complexity) to the finished product. Winemakers get a chance to be creative and develop character when using multiple grapes. So don’t be scared – try some blends!
- Cuvée – Another word for a blend, which you’ll usually find on Champagne labels. Sometimes winemakers will use this to indicate a special blend or one of higher quality.
- Estate – Fancy word for farm-to-bottle. In other words, Estate wines are produced (harvested, mixed, stored and bottled) where they are grown. Typically this indicates a smaller operation (although that’s not always the case) as most larger producers source at least some of their grapes from other farms.
- Late Harvest – The grapes remain on the vine longer, loosing their moisture and becoming prune-like. The sugars in the grapes are condensed to create a sweeter wine, which goes great before the meal with appetizers or with dessert.
- Meritage – Usually used in the United States to describe a red wine made from grapes use in French Bordeaux blends (which we love btw). These include merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot.
- Oaked/Unoaked/Stainless Steel – Refers to the type of container the wine was stored in before bottling. We are seeing more and more ‘unoaked’ wines on the market and thats a good thing. Oak sometimes overpowers the fruit on a wine – so unoaked or stainless steel means that fruit is more vibrant and wine tastes much cleaner. This plays a big part in the final taste and aroma of the wine.
- Old Vine – You guessed it! Old Vine wines are produced from notably old grape vines – usually 100+ years. If these wines come from New World producers (basically anywhere outside of Europe), it’s possible they were transplanted from Old World vineyards. If you get a chance to visit a tasting room pouring Old Vine varietals make sure and ask for the history!
- Proprietor’s Blend – A term usually used to denote a wine made using more than one grape variety. Typically it’s used when the grapes are all from a similar region.
- Reserve – Typically indicates a favorite wine of the producer or made with higher quality grapes from select vineyards.
Have questions about terms that you don’t see here? Let us know! Comment below, tweet to @CrushedWineApp or comment on our Facebook page. We would love to hear from you! Feel free to post some of your favorite labels to the Crushed Wine App while you’re at it!