Reading wine labels

You'd think, after so many years of wine production, we'd be finding some sort of solidarity on wine labels. It is remarkable to me that I still spend quite a bit of time explaining to clients and students what a wine label actually adresses to the contents in the bottle. We look at all kinds of words on wine labels but, for the most part, these words remain meaninless to the great majority of wine buyers. Lets take a close look at a wine label and see if we can't decipher the scribble;

Alcohol statement — I think this statement of alcohol remains possibly the most important factor in wine appreciation. Regardless of the area (with some exceptions) alcohol levels should remain under 14%. Any higher than this we can find real problems with the wine. Higher alcohol levels can tell us that the grapes were overripe leading to punchy wines with great heat in the finish and a wine that can be way out of balance. We many times see wines from Amador county or Lodi, California exhibiting well over 15% alcohol levels, especially in Zinfandels wherein the wines are huge, filled with alcoholic heat and sometimes jammy to a fault. On the other side of the coin, the under 12% alcohol wines, (again, with notable exceptions) can display immature fruit, off putting residual sugar and a host of other problems. Be aware of the alcohol levels.

Bin numbers, lot numbers and special notations — Words and phrases such as "Family Cuvee", "Family Select", "Winemaker's Reserve" or crazy numbers such as "Bin19" or "Lot 69" mean absolutely nothing on an (in fact) quality statement. Just because a winemaker decides to designate something on a label as being "special" does in no manner make it special. If there is historical evidence that a specific winery has a "Bin" of note, that this "Reserve" has continued to be of special merit vintage after vintage or that this specific designation receives high scores or gold medals this is another matter. A simple statement of winery (in house) designation can often be a ruse. I remember some years ago a winery putting a "Barrel select" sticker on some outrageously bad wine after the wine had languished on the shelves for months. Winery staff went around to different retailers and attached the stickers to the bottles in hopes that the wine would move. It did.

Vineyard designations — These are statements on labels that tell us where, specifically on the estate, the grapes are grown. Again, in itself, this is never a true statement of quality. This is only a statement of where the grapes are grown! Specific vineyards sites, in themselves, are simply plots of land where grapes are grown. We have, on the other hand historically wonderful vineyard sites that bear looking at closely such as Martha's Vineyard in Napa and Jessie, Shea or Evelyn in Oregon. These single vineyard appellations are quality statements because we have found wine coming from these specific plots to be superior. Go on line or talk to a wine professional to get an idea of which single vineyard wines are the best and which are simply place names with very little quality, historically, to command high prices.

Place and village names on labels- villages such as Barolo, Montaclino, Beaune and other historical sites for grand wines are fundamental in understanding fine European wines. This understanding on European place names takes some study, unfortunately, but is well worth the time and effort. We know that in Bordeaux, for example, there are smaller appellations which produce fine wines such as St. Estephe and Pauillac (and many more) hich have tremendous historical influence on the wine scene. We also have in the United States areas such as Napa, WallaWalla and Los Carneros to name just a few which will also tell us that residing there are extraordinary wines.

Next week I will go more in depth on labels and specifics on how to find that nice bottle of vino. See you then!

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