Decoding Wine Labels:

A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

Sonal C Holland MW
India's one and only Master of Wine.

A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

While working in the wine industry, you’ll come across innumerable wine labels, each more exquisite and distinct from the previous one. Consumers often look up to wine service professionals and experts for help in order to decode these labels, and some day, you’ll be that individual. Since the world of wine labels is as diverse and vast as the beverage itself, it is a smart move to learn the basics at the start of your wine education journey and get a head start.

To decode wine labels, first, you need to understand what they represent. Wine labels are just a source of information that guide buyers through the purchasing process. They also represent culture and wine traditions specific to a region. From font to colour and even the manner in which the information is displayed on a wine label can tell you a lot about the region it comes from and what they priorities. For example, wines from France will always mention the region where a wine was produced, that too prominently, but seldom display the variety of grape used to make it.

Decoding wine labels will not only help you improve your services, but also increase your knowledge. It’s also like learning shorthand of wine language, which increases your efficiency and helps you navigate better through endless rows of wine bottles without losing focus or feeling intimidated. If you are a student who is planning to gain a WSET Level 2 or WSET Level 3 Award, then wine labels will also work as a good source of knowledge for you.

Also ReadHow WSET Courses Help Your Wine Career Grow

A Guide To Decoding Wine Labels

To understand how wine labels are written, we have to remember their purpose. A wine label is meant to tell a buyer all that they need to know, in order to make an informed purchase. Each buyer looks for a wine that matches their preference- be it on the basis of the style of wine, region, year of harvest, alcohol content, etc.

Here’s some common information that is mentioned on wine labels:

Who made the wine: Every wine label displays the name of the wine producer. The name can be either displayed on the top part of the label or its bottom (in French wines). Many producers also include their coat of arms on the label, to make it easier for buyers to identify their brand from afar. If the region to which the wine belongs is more popular than the producer, then the former will be displayed in a bolder and larger font. The producer’s name, in such cases, then appears in the lower part of the label.

Where was the wine made: For Old World Wine nations like France, the region where the wine was produced is of utmost importance, as it is a key component in determining a wine’s quality. So, it is often a prime spot on the label, displayed in a large font. The more specific the region is, the higher the wine’s value. Mentioning the region vaguely (eg: Napa Valley or California) lowers its value.

Also Read: Champagne, Prosecco, Cava: What’s The Difference

The variety of grapes used: Most bottles of wine that you’ll see in the market display the variety of grapes used to make the wine as it gives a lot of information to the buyer- style of wine, acidity, level of sweetness, body, etc. However, French winemakers do not display the variety of grapes on their labels. The idea is that a grape variety can produce a variable harvest for every region, depending on its terroir. Also, each wine-growing region is known to grow specific varieties of grapes. So, if you know the region, you know what variety of grapes went into your bottle.

Vintage: This refers to the year the grapes were harvested to make the wine in your bottle. The year mentioned indicates the climatic conditions under which the grape grew, and helps buyers get a sense of how these conditions might have impacted its taste. This is especially important in the case of vintage wines from Old World wine regions like France, Italy, Northern Spain etc., that are known to have unpredictable weather.

How much alcohol does it have: The percentage of alcohol in wine can range from 5.5 percent to 23 percent. In many countries, including India, a numerical alcohol content statement is mandatory for all wines with alcohol by volume (ABV). Also, the amount of alcohol in the wine has a substantial impact on its taste and thus can be a factor on which a buyer bases their purchase. So, ABV is mentioned on all wine labels.

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