The bizarre world of wine labels

Have you ever been in a supermarket or wine shop, looked at the bottles on the shelves and thought: “I have no clue what the fuck half of this is supposed to mean”?

Well I have and sometimes still do. With ‘Old World’ wines in particular the labels can be baffling and, if you aren’t familiar with the region, it can be difficult to actually know what you are drinking. Apps with which you can scan the label of a bottle, like ‘Vivino’, make life easier. In most cases it will instantly bring up all the information you need concerning that particular bottle, producer and region. However, you don’t want to be taking pictures of every bottle of wine you come across in a supermarket; you’ll be there forever as well as looking like a bit of a twat.

With all of this in mind, I’m going to give you a simple starter guide on how to read a wine label and explain the primary grapes behind these labels, focusing on traditional wine producing regions like France, Italy and Spain.

The main focal point typically displayed on an ‘Old World’ bottle will be the place in which it is made e.g. Chablis, Bordeaux, Rioja, Navarra, Priorat, Chianti etc. A common misconception is that these are the grapes used to make the wine.

Frustratingly, in these parts of the world, a lot of the time the grape varieties aren’t displayed and it is almost assumed that we should just know. I find this very annoying, as do wine professionals such as columnist Jancis Robinson, who explains her frustration regarding the lack of information available on bottle labels in her book The 24-hour Wine Expert.

With typical French bottles there will be a picture of a big house/château and it will read something like Domaine du Raceime or Chateau Bel-Air. This tells us the producer – you can think of it as a brand name. Underneath this picture it will state the area it was made in. Cheaper bottles will state a generic region like Bordeaux, Bourgogne or Beaujolais, whereas what you really want to look for is if it states the actual village or town name e.g. Pommard, Sauvigny lès Beaune, Côte de Bourg, Pomerol, Fleurie, Brouilly etc.

I appreciate that this is where it starts to get complicated because, if you are a casual wine drinker, why would you want to look into this in depth? But, trust me, it is worth knowing. Wines not only taste different from region to region but they have different characteristics from village to village.

You also should look out for phrases such as “Mis en bouteille à la propriété/au château/au domaine”. If a bottle of wine displays this statement, it means it has been bottled on the premises and, nine times out of ten, this is what you want from a bottle of wine. They have to state where it was bottled so I would think twice about purchasing a bottle of Italian wine from the liquor store that was bottled in a factory in Nottingham, UK, or Dartmouth, NS, etc. This is normally an indicator of a cheap, mass produced wine. It won’t kill you to drink it but I’d personally pay more money for something that the winemaker was actively involved in throughout the whole process, rather than having outsourced the final stages.

Most wines will have their vintage year on the label, unless it is a ‘non vintage’ Champagne. That’s simple enough but, if you are looking in the Spanish wine section, just keep in mind a few words and terms. Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These terms indicate how long they have been aged in oak for.

Crianza = For reds: Two years aged and at least six months in oak. For whites: One year aged with at least six months in oak.

Reserva = For reds: Three years aged and at least one year in oak. For whites: Two years aged and six months in oak.

Gran Reserva = For reds: Five years aged, at least 18 months in oak and a minimum 36 months in the bottle. For whites: They must be aged for at least four years with six months in oak.

So we’ve explored France and Spain, now it’s time to visit our good friends in Italy. I’m going to keep this as basic as possible because I appreciate that your head may be exploding with all of this information. Italian wine labels can be very confusing and, with literally hundreds of grape varieties used, it can be extremely overwhelming.

A good tip that I picked up from reading the work of Madeline Puckette is: when in doubt assume Sangiovese. It is the most widely planted grape in Italy and is prevalent in popular wines such as Chianti and Brunello.

Like France, most Italian wine is labelled with the focus on the denominacion (town or region) although in some exceptions they will label it via grape variety (also applicable in France). The most well known examples of this are Barbera d’Asti/Alba (Barbera being the grape, Asti & Alba being the geographical locations) and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (same format as Barbera). Normally though it will be named after the region, like Chianti, Soave, Gavi and Barolo.

Common words to look out for on a bottle of Italian wine…

Superiore: Indicates higher quality grapes have been used (a bit like 1er cru in France, if you don’t understand what I mean then don’t worry! That will be explained in a different article).

Classico: This just means the wine is from the original/classic region of the area it was made in.

Riserva: This means that the wine has been aged for longer than other wines from the same denomination.

That’s the basics on how to read ‘Old World’ wine labels! To finish, here’s a list of the primary grapes used in the wider regional varieties I mentioned.

Burgundy (aka Bourgogne) – Chardonnay & Pinot Noir
Bordeaux – Normally a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc
Beaujolais – Gamay

Rioja – Tempranillo
Navarra – Tempranillo
Priorat – Garnacha Tinta (Red Grenache)

Chianti – Sangiovese
Gavi – Cortese
Soave – Garganega
Barolo – Nebbiolo

– James

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