Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

WINE: How to Decipher the Wine Label

So now you know what wine is and how to taste it, now let's say you're standing in the store, trying to pick out a wine. Just what does all that stuff on the labels mean?

The most important thing to know is that there are only a few elements on a wine label and depending on what part of the world the wine is from, the label will be trying to convey different things. Don't worry about it. Unless you are a super-expert in wine, those things on the label aren't going to help you much anyway, particularly with European wine. But knowing what those things are, will help you to at least keep track of features of wines you liked so that you can pick similar wines in the future.

American Labels: American labels are all about two things: the winery and the grape. When you read an American label, you are mostly going to get information about the winery it came from, and the type of grape that mostly makes up the wine. It will also on there the wine region that the wine came from. These are not as specific as on a European label, but as California wines become more reknowned, more small appellations are springing up.

Here we have a bottle of Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Generation Red. On this label you will find the standard label components of an American wine. Many of these components are called "the mandatory" because they are mandated by the government to appear on the labels of wines sold in the U.S.:

  • Brand Name (Winery): The brand of wine is the producer of the wine. In this case it's Hartley Ostini Hitching Post Winery. If there is no brand name, then the bottler is considered the brand. This is a mandatory component.
  • Vintage: This is the year the grapes for this particular wine were harvested. This is an optional component of a label. In the U.S., up to 15% of the grapes may have been harvested in another year than stated, unless they are labeled with a specific appellation. The Hitching Post Wine is designated a Santa Barbara County wine, which is an AVA designation, therefore, 95% of the grapes must be of the stated vintage. Here, it's 2004, meaning 95% of the grapes in this wine were harvested in 2004. If you knew something about the weather in Santa Barbara County in 2004, then the vintage year might tell you something meaningful about this wine. For your average wine drinker, the vintage won't tell you much. However, some wines are meant to age and some can or even should be drunk while still young. So the vintage can help you with that.
  • Appellation: Appellation does not mean nearly as much on an American label as it does on a European. Unless you are getting a boutique wine, chances are the grapes came from many different areas. Wine can be much more of a factory operation here, and a "winery" may be using grapes from many different growers in different areas of the region, and on an appellation-specific wine, 15% of the grapes may come from out of the region entirely. In the case of the Hitching Post, the appellation is Santa Barbara County, and if you do some research, you find that the grapes come from three different vineyards all in different areas of the county: Los Alamos, Santa Ynez, and Cachuma Lake. Appellation is of course, optional, since not all American wines can receive a specific appellation.
  • Type (Blend): Usually, the type of wine is required to be on the label--table wine, dessert wine, or sparkling wine, or the type of grape. If a wine is made at least 75% from one varietal of grape, then they may use that varietal as the name of the wine. Otherwise, they have to state the blend. This means that although the wine you're drinking may say "Pinot Noir," it may be 25% composed of some other type or types of grapes. The Hitching Post wine is a blend, and it's alcohol content (14.5%) is too high to be a table wine (14% max), so it's wine type is the various percentages of grapes that compose this particular wine blend. The type is a mandatory part of the label.
  • Name of Blend, or Proprietary Name: Because this wine is a blend, it needs a more convenient name. How would you like to order the Hitching Post Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Syrah Refosco in a restaurant? Since they can't just call it a merlot (it would have to be 75% merlot), the vintners give this blend a proprietary name, in this case "Generation Red." Then you can just ask for the the "Generation Red" and everyone is much happier.
European Wine Labels: European wine labels are all about place. They want you to know exactly where your wine came from, sometimes down to the particular vine. That is because a type of grape may grow in several places and it may have different qualities depending on where it's grown. This emphasis on the exact location of a type of wine is due to the concept fo terroir.

Terroir: Don't get scared! Terroir, in French, means "soil." When speaking of wines, terroir refers to the particular blend of factors in a geographical location, such as soil type, altitude, position relative to the sun, angle of incline, and water drainage. All of these factors contribute to the unique characteristics of each wine. Therefore, if you know a lot about wine, and about the different wine regions, then looking at a European wine label might give you a pretty good idea of what that wine will be like before you even open it.

This is a bottle of Domaine Charles Audoin Marsannay Cuvee Marie Ragonneau. Looking at this label could tell a whole lot about this wine, if you knew a lot about wines. I don't, so I had to look it up, but it's very interesting how this label tells a story.

  • Vintage: The vintage year is again optional, but in a wine like this, that is a product of a very specific locale, then vintage can mean a lot, since the weather may vary significantly from year to year, and this will have an effect on the wine's characteristics. This wine above is vintage year 2003. This should just be ready to drink this year, but I could also let it wait for several more years.
  • Appellation (Larger Region): On this label, the appellation is broken down very specifically. First, there is the larger region, which is Burgundy, or Bourgogne. This means that this wine comes from the Burgundy region. It also means that this wine is made of Pinot Noir grapes, which are the designated varietal for Burgundy wines. It also means that the grapes were grown and the wine made using the designated methods required in order to receive the appellation.
  • Appellation (Smaller Region): Because the major regions can make up large areas of a country, the wine will also advertise a smaller appellation, so that you can get a better sense of the the wine. In this case, the wine comes from Marsannay. Marsannay is a commune located on the Cote D'Or. Marsanny consists of a strip of vineyards that make up the most northerly part of the Burgundy region. Since Marsannay is a fairly new appellation, these wines are a good bargain.
  • Vineyard: Some wines will go as far as to carry the name of the specific vineyard on them, in order to completely specify the terroir. In this case, there is no particular vineyard. The word "cuvee" means that this is a blend of grapes from different vineyards. I have no clue who or what Marie Ragonneau is.
  • Wine Producer: The producer is of course, the winery that made the wine. Here it's Domaine Charles Audoin. It is a family winery. The french phrase "recolte et mis en boteille au" means that the grapes were harvested and bottled by the owners of the vines, the Audoins. In other words, this is all one operation. The winery grows, picks and bottles the wine themselves. This suggests a certain level of quality control.

And then, sometimes you get a wine like this. This is actually an Italian wine, but it's from the Alto Adige region, which is practically Austrian, so you get these crazy German words and the label looks very daunting. When you get something like this, you really just have to do some research.

In this case, I was able to discover that Franz Gojer was the vintner. The stupendous word "Glogglhof" is the name of his vineyards. Then we have the region, which is the St. Magdalener, an area named after the church of St. Magdalena, which stands above the region. St. Magdalener is part of the larger region of the South Tyrol, Sudtirol, or Alto Adige. This is an area of Italy that was annexed in World War II and was once part of Austria. To this day, while it remains Italian, it is a mostly German speaking region and its German-speaking residents enjoy many privileges of citizenship in Austria as well as Italy.

"Rondell" is the name of the specific spot these grapes were grown. Rondell is the name of the very top of the "Glogglhugel" which is the hill where the grapes are grown. The Rondell has the oldest vines and therefore the most valuable grapes. You may see something like this concept on French or American wines as well, if the bottle says "Old Vines" or "Vielle Vignes." Old vines produce a smaller quantity of fruit than younger vines and their quality is believed to be very good.

The long words in the middle are the German equivalent of "AOC" and "Estate-Bottled"

Special Labels for German Wines: Since I'm on the subject of German words, I might as well give a quick run-through of common things you might see on a German wine label that might prove to be useful information:

  • Sekt: Sparkling wine
  • Trocken: Dry
  • Halbtrocken: Semi-dry
  • QbA: Quality wine
  • QmP: Quality wine with special properties. The special properties are designated by the following labels.
  • Kabinett: The first level of ripeness. These are the lightest wines.
  • Spatlese: Later harvest, makes a fuller wine of medium body and heaviness.
  • Auslese: Select harvest, specially selected grapes, these are often dessert wines, are fuller in body and generally represent the very best wines, only present in certain years.
  • Beerenauslese: Berry select wines, these are usually wines made from grapes that been specially picked because they are shriveled or botrytized, meaning they are affected by the noble rot that makes an extra-concentrated juice. These are rare and expensive wines.
  • Trockenbeerenauslese: An even more extreme form of the above, they are as thick as syrup and require lots of aging. They are also some of the most special wines in the world and most expensive. They are very rare, and should never be drunk young.
  • Eiswein: This means the grapes were frozen on the vine and picked and pressed while still frozen. Usually a dessert wine, and expensive.


Cool! Nicely done. I feel like the slacker kid in class who doesn't do his homework and then peers over the shoulder of the good student who is prepared. Are you getting this info from the books you mentioned? Or are cozying up to a expert and paying attention?

said by Acme Instant Food at 12:44 PM Delete

Hey, feel free! We're not being graded, so I don't care. ;)

The information comes from all over, from the "Wine for Dummies" book, from various winery websites, or from stuff I have learned by talking to people.

For example, some of the German wine label information comes from a German friend of the family who explained the basics to me, and the rest comes from the internets.

I highly recommend the Wine for Dummies, though. It's pretty amazing.

said by KT at 12:58 PM Delete

I love a trip to the bookstore! I think I'll traipse over to the Grove and hit Barnes & Noble. Of course, Sur la Table is having their sale so... :)

said by Acme Instant Food at 1:15 PM Delete

this is great! what did you use to put the little arrows on the labels? p.s. "Trockenbeerenauslese" is my new favorite word.

said by anyanka at 7:07 PM Delete

Photoshop is my friend! You don't even have to make the arrows, it has an arrow shape you can just plop on.

I love how in German they don't ever feel the need to make up new words, they just compound however many words it takes into one to get the point across. "Dryberryselection"- you would not find that word in English.

said by KT at 7:18 PM Delete

Very informative. I like! I like!

said by Chubbypanda at 9:14 PM Delete

An excellent post! Bra-va!

said by Garrett at 8:00 AM Delete

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