How to Read a Wine Label

Labeling requirements vary significantly from country to country. Specific information that is required to be on the label is governed by the local laws at the point of sale where the wine is marketed, rather than where it is produced. This requirement often results in two different wine labels for the same wine. Then, if the wine is marketed where it was produced it will have one wine label, if the wine is to be exported it may have another version of the first wine label in order to meet the requirements of local laws. After the label is designed, it must be approved by the same government agency that controls wine production in that country, as well as the various government agencies that control the import and sale of the wine.

Most wine bottles have two labels applied to each bottle. The front label is meant to attract your attention while the back label may be used to provoke your senses. As an example the label may state: "A wonderful aperitif, this smooth, elegant, wonderfully fruity wine…". The label may also include serving suggestions for pairing with food. These statements are not governed by law.

The United States Department of the Treasury Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms minimum wine label requirements include:

Identifying brand name - brand identification This may be the owner's name, winery name, growing area, the name of the appellation where the wine originated, the grape variety, or a trademark name.

The brand name cannot be misleading as to the age, origin, or characteristics of the wine. In the United States the name of the wine varietal cannot be displayed on the label unless it contains a minimum of 75% of that grape varietal.

Class of wine, type, or designation The wine is labeled with the class number or with a description similar to those described here:

Class 1 - The bottle may be labeled "Table Wine", "Light Wine", "Red Table Wine", "Light White Wine", "Sweet Table Wine" or something similar. Class 1 wine has a alcohol content 7% to 14% by volume, no more, no less.
Class 2 - The bottle may be labeled "Sparkling Wine" or something similar. Class 2 wine has been made sparkling by a natural method only.
Class 3 - The bottle may be labeled "Carbonated Grape Wine" or something similar. Class 3 wine has been injected with carbon dioxide.
Class 4 - The bottle may be labeled "Citrus Wine" or something similar. Class 4 is wine that was produced primarily with ripe citrus fruit.
Class 5 - The bottle may be labeled "Fruit Wine" or something similar. Class 5 wine was produced primarily of ripe fruits other than grapes or citrus.
Class 6 - Wine that has been made from Agricultural products such as vegetables.
Class 7 - The bottle may be labeled "Aperitif Wine" or something similar. Class 7 wine has an alcohol content of not less than 15% by volume; the grape wine has been compounded with added brandy, alcohol, and flavored with herbs and natural aromatic flavoring.
Class 8 - The bottle may be labeled "Imitation Wine" or something similar. Class 8 wine contains man-made materials.
Class 9 - The bottle may be labeled "Retsina Wine" or something similar. Class 9 wine is a grape table wine has been fermented or flavored with resin.

Name and address of the bottler, producer,
country of origin
Required on all American wines. The words "bottled by" must precede the name and address of the bottler.

"Produced and bottled by" is allowed if the bottler fermented and clarified at least 75% of the wine.

"Made and bottled by" is allowed if the winery fermented and clarified at least 10% of the wine; or, by adding alcohol or carbonation, the winery changed the class/type of the wine; or, by secondary fermentation, the winery produced sparkling wine.

"Cellared", "vinted", or "prepared" is allowed if the winery exposed the wine to a type of cellar treatment that is outlined in the regulations.

"Blended and bottled" is allowed when the winery mixed the wine with another wine of the same type and class at the location where it was bottled.

Researching and becoming familiar with the producers of wine is an essential element in determining quality. For example: Wines from France are most often produced by a Château or a Domaine; Wines from Germany, Italy, and Spain are produced by Estates; The United States and Australia are often labeled as being produced by a winery. The exact name of the producer becomes most crucial because some producers share surnames but the quality of the wine can vary dramatically.

The country of origin is the country where the wine is produced, not necessarily where all the grapes contained in the wine were grown.

Appellation of origin

This is the country or region where the grapes were grown. This statement can be broad or as specific as a vineyard, or it could include both.

In the United States, an appellation of origin on the label is mandatory (true place of origin) if:

  • The name is qualified with the word "brand"
  • The wine is labeled with the year the grapes were harvested (vintage)
  • A varietal or type with varietal significance is used
  • A generic term is used

Wines produced in the U.S.: When wine labels proclaim California as the "Appellation of Origin", state law requires that 100% of the grapes are from within California. Nearly all other states require that 75% of the grapes come from within that state. If a wine label specifies an officially designated viticultural area, (i.e.: Napa Valley), a minimum of 85% of the grapes must come from within the named region.

Alcohol content by volume Required on any wine that contains more than 14% alcohol by volume. Wines that are in this category are considered to be "fortified wines" and are taxed 4 times higher than those wines that contain less than 14%. The alcohol by volume for sherries ranges from 17 to 20%, for ports 18 to 20%.

Wines that contain less than 14% alcohol by volume are to state this fact or an appropriate and approved Class term (i.e.: "Table Wine", "Light Wine", etc.) can be used on the label.

A 1% variation, over or under, is permitted on wines above 14% of alcohol content by volume. A 1.5% variation, over or under, is permitted on wines below 14% alcohol by volume. This variation is allowed because evaporation during ageing is not controllable and the common tool, known as an ebulliometer, is not entirely accurate. Modern wineries have sophisticated methods of measuring alcohol by volume that are more precise, by using a tool known as a gas chromatograph.

Net volume of contents 750ml (milliliters) is the most common bottle volume. If the volume of contents does not appear on the label, it is likely to be molded into the glass bottle.
Declaration of sulfites
or
wine may be labeled as "Organic" or "Made with Organically Grown Grapes"
A derivative of sulfur, sulfites are compounds that form naturally during the same fermentation process that turns grape juice into alcohol. This naturally occurring compound prevents microbial growth. The practice of purposely adding sulfur dioxide at any point in the winemaking process is called "sulfating". Winemakers often supplement wines during winemaking by adding small amounts of sulfur dioxide to protect fruit quality and prevent oxidation, allowing wine to age well. Some winemakers also spray their vineyard with a sulfur compound to prevent disease and pests.
U.S. Law dictates that wine with sulfites higher than 10 ppm must state "contains sulfites" on the label. The reason for this is that sulfites may cause severe allergic reactions and/or severe headaches in some individuals. The concept of winemaking without adding sulfites is a new movement that is gaining momentum and the resulting products are referred to as "organic wines". Wines that are labeled simply "organic" contain only those sulfites that occur naturally. Wines labeled "made with organically grown grapes" are made with organically grown grapes, but contain more sulfites than those that occur naturally.
Government health warning Wine that is marketed in the United States must include the Government Health Warning on the label which may include any of several messages:

A U.S. Surgeon General warning states that drinking alcoholic beverages can:
1. cause birth defects;
2. impair ability to drive a car or operate machinery; and
3. cause health problems.

A majority of wineries provide more information on the label than is required by law and may include:

A majority of wineries provide more information on the label than is required by law and may include:

The year in which the grapes were harvested, which may not be the same as the year it was bottled. Law varies from country to country as to the percentage of the wine required to be harvested in the year of the vintage. U.S. law requires 95% or more be harvested in that year with the remaining blended from other years. The remaining 5% is typically wine that is added to cap off casks of wine while it is ageing.

A wine that is a combination of grapes from 2 years or more may be labeled as "non vintage", but most often there is no mention of date.

Varietal

Not always disclosed. If the varietal is not named, the wine is most likely a blend. In the United States a wine must contain a minimum of 75% of a varietal for the varietal name to appear on the label.

Wine name

Not a requirement, an additional distinctive, whimsical, wine name is allowed but is not always included on the label. Sometimes the brand name/winery name represents the name of the wine. Other wineries may use the appellation or the appellation and climate to represent the name of the wine.

Quality of wine

Countries that produce wine have a ranking system to distinguish wines that meet specific criteria to determine the quality of a wine. For example, Italy's ranking system from the lowest to highest levels are:

" Vino da Tavola
" Vino Tipico
" DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata)
" And DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) wines which are of the highest level.

Note that the ranking of DOCG does not always mean it is better than those of lesser rankings, though it is an indication it is of a higher quality.

Vineyard of origin

Wineries sometimes display the vineyard when they feel the grapes from that particular vineyard are known as being of unusually high quality. U.S. policy requires that 95% of the grapes must be from the vineyard named on the label.

"Estate Bottled" or "Grown, Produced, and Bottled By:" 100% of the wine was produced from grapes grown on land owned, or controlled by the winery that made and bottled the wine. The vineyard and the winery must be in the same viticultural area that is stated on the label.
Special designation Winemakers may place terms on the label that proclaim unusual characteristic that a particular wine may possess. Designated by the wine producer, these terms may include: "Reserve", "Reserva", and "Special Selection".

Refer to Wine Terms & Definitions for specific terminology that may appear on a bottle of wine.

 

 

 

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