How to Decode a Wine Label

man with arms folded behind his back looking a wall full of wine bottles.

Drinking wine has long been a part of history, from ancient Judeo-Christian traditions to Egyptian ceremonies — even grapes hailing from France’s Champagne region have been made into white wine since the Middle Ages. In fact, a recent study even found that today’s consumers are drinking wine from the same grapes—or a direct relative—as those consumed by medieval Frenchmen some 900 years ago. Because the tradition of wine production has been around for so long, there are many types to choose from, which can be intimidating for even the most seasoned wine enthusiast.

If you’re looking for a place to start, understanding how to “read” a wine label is the first step towards choosing a wine. Labels vary from country to country, and some contain mountains of information while others remain spare and clean. Label design differs drastically as well: some labels lend a more old-fashioned, vintage feel, while others are decidedly modern. Though they can be tricky to interpret, learning to decipher the label can help make more informed choices when seeking out a specific bottle.

The Evolution of the Label

Château Pétrus Vintage 1982. Sold for $72,850 via Christie’s (November 2006).

According to a Persian legend, wine was first discovered by a despondent young woman who, in an attempt to end her life, drank spoiled residue produced by rotting table grapes. Instead of poisoning herself, she became intoxicated and thus, the pleasurable effects of wine were discovered. Evidence from the burial site of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun indicates that the ancient Egyptians were among the first to actually label their wines. Labels from King Tut’s heyday detailed the vintage, the growing region, and the wine-maker.

Throughout the Persian Empire, winemakers began labeling their wines out of necessity due to the many varieties of wine that were produced concurrently. Early labelwork utilized pieces of parchment paper tied with string around the bottle of the neck to identify the varietal. Later, labels evolved into carvings throughout the base of pewter stands that described the wine’s region.

By the 18th century, labels were designed on stone. In 1789, the invention of lithography—a method of printing originally based on the immiscibility of oil and water—allowed labels to be printed in mass quantities, increasing the ability to distribute wine quickly. As winemakers became more profitable and proud of their work, more time and effort was spent on labels. Eventually, elaborate designs, descriptions, notes, and colors were implemented, as many utilized the prominent artwork and interests of the time period.

With the rise of advertising, information, and prosperity in the 20th century, producers realized they could easily target a specific audience through captivating brand design and promotion. This furthered the need for more intricate and well-executed labels featuring patterns and vivid imagery. Producers began testing avant-garde approaches, even commissioning prominent artists to design their labels. Wine producer Château Mouton Rothschild was an early pioneer of art-inspired labels, commissioning artists like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol to design its labels. Today, contemporary artists continue the practice, with creatives such as Tracey Emin lending their talents to the world of wine labels.

The Basic Elements of a Wine Label

two bottles of red wine on a white background.

Château Lafleur 1986. Sold for HKD45,325 via Bonhams (November 2014).

Labels provide useful information in selecting and savoring a bottle of wine. While some information like name, volume, and alcohol content are compulsory in all countries, laws and regulations differ throughout the world. In general, most wine bottles have two labels, one on the front and one on the back. This allows makers to simplify the appearance of the face of the bottle, while providing all required legal information on the back. Below, we discuss all the information you may find on a wine bottle, and how each can help determine the quality and taste you’ll find in your pour.

Memorable Name and Design

This is optional, but many producers use a fanciful name to attract the likes of a target demographic. It also helps to distinguish the brand on the front label.

Producer or Bottler

This is a mandatory requirement and indicates who made the wine. If no brand name is listed on the label, the bottler’s name is listed and is thus considered the brand. The name can be obvious appearing in large format, or perhaps in small text at the top or bottom of the label, which is the case in many French wine labels. Some American wine labels that only display a wine name are branded wines from larger wine companies. For example, Apothic Red is a branded wine by E&J Gallo, the producer. Below is a list of several common producer descriptions:

  • Produced/made and bottled by: This indicates that the bottler fermented 75 percent or more of the wine at the stated address.
  • Cellared and bottled by: This indicates that the bottler has subjected the wine to cellar treatment before bottling at the stated address.
  • Bottled by: This indicates that though it was bottled at the stated address, it may have been grown, crushed, fermented, or aged elsewhere.
six bottles of wine styled on a wooden box.

La Tâche 1990. Sold for £55,125 via Christie’s (June 2019).

Region

Most wines have some sort of geographical indication that denotes where the grapes were sourced to produce the wine. If a particular wine is from a specific vineyard, this will be indicated in quotations or located below the region designation. These wines are often considered more refined and thus more expensive than those from a general region.

Varietal or Wine Type

The variety refers to what grape or grapes are used. For example, Merlot or Chianti or CMS Blend (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah). For blends in particular, the percentage of each used isn’t typically stated. Wines that use varietal names must derive at least 75 percent of their volume from the grape designated, and the varietal name must appear on the label with an appellation of origin—that is, the legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes were grown.

Vintage or Non-Vintage (NV)

While this is an optional element, the classification of vintage versus non-vintage says a lot about the quality and type of wine. “Vintage” refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. Those that are multi-vintage or non-vintage wines tend to be less valuable because winemakers pull from multiple vintages to control the flavor. In May 2006, U.S. federal regulations changed, allowing up to 15 percent of a blend to be from a vintage other than the stated year. Previously, 95 percent of the grapes used were required to be from the stated vintage. This law allowed producers in the United States to have similar standards as other wine producing countries.

1959 Petrus. Sold for $41,125 via Christie’s (November 2006).

Alcohol by Volume (ABV)

Alcohol by Volume can determine much about the wine and is a good indication of how rich it may taste. Most commercially available wines will range from 7.5 percent ABV all the way to 17% ABV. While European wine regions only allow their highest quality wines to have a 13.5 percent ABV and above, in the United States, ABVs can be quite high. High alcohol wines are made from riper grapes and tend to have more fruit-forward flavors.

Estated Bottle

Though not a requirement, Estate Bottled certifies that the winery grew 100 percent of the grapes on land it owns or controls. This means that the wine was grown, produced, and bottled on that specific estate. Here is what the term looks like on wine from various countries:

  • Mis en Bouteille au Château (France)
  • Embotellat a la Propietat (Spain)
  • Imbottigliato all’origine (Italy)
  • Erzeugerabfüllung (Germany)

How to Read a Wine Label

While dissecting a wine label may not reveal everything about how a particular bottle will taste, it will help you make a more educated purchasing decision. Use the visualization below to help understand the quality and origin when considering your next purchase.

 

As demand for wine grows in the United States, and French reds from the Bordeaux region, Italian reds, South American reds, and other New World wines continue to flood the market, it’s important to understand how to identify the types that speak to your taste. At auction, fine wines can be conservatively priced, so experts recommend inquiring about the region of production, purchase history, and other notable information that can reveal much about the taste and quality of the beverage. At the end of the day, our editors recommend that you discover a bottle that you like, pour, and repeat.

Sources: Napa Valley Vintners | The Takeout | Wine Folly | Wine Turtle | Lazenne