How to read a wine label

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Ellen Duggan demystifies the jargon and gibberish on your wine bottle.

Who would have thought, so many years ago, that cigarette packets would stare back at us with a gloomy, grey, and homogenized aesthetic?

Call me paranoid, but if this is possible for cigarettes wine labels may face a similar fate. Let us pretend that it is our mission to bask in their colourful and expressive beauty while they last, in order to decode their mystical language, before it is too late. 

Running through all of the compulsory facts included on a wine label may seem like the last thing you want to do at 21:59 on a Monday evening in your local Off Licence, but through noticing what subtleties you appreciate, you can save yourself from ordering the house red and pouring half a can of coke into it, before the restaurant sommelier spots you and slaps you on the wrist. 

Decoding that wine bottle may not seem so difficult to translate, even whilst under the influence, after some quick key pointers. 

1. Country
This one is fairly self explanatory, if you see ‘produit de France’ I am sure you can assess its country of origins and do not need my help. Through understanding the wine’s birth place, you will be able to narrow down the potential grape type and typical wines of the country in question like a pro. For example, if you are in a rush and see ‘Product of New Zealand’ and it is under 12 bucks, rest assured it is probably a sauvignon blanc.

2. Brand name/ Vineyard
If you are looking at an old and expensive wine, that is titled, for example, ‘Chateau de blah blah’ what you may be looking at is the ‘blah blah’ vineyard, which is, coincidentally, the brand name. Take pride in your chateau, every chateau can be transformed into a dream wedding destination, or stay firmly printed on the label of your favourite bottle of red, that now serves as an ambient candle holder on your study desk.

3. Region
The region indicates from where the grapes were sourced. This could be Bordeaux in France, or Marlborough, which is an area in New Zealand that produces Sauvingon Blanc. This is considered a ‘new wine’, as it is in the grape harvested area of New Zealand. Figuring out which region you like could be the first step to finding your drinkable true love.

4. Alcohol Percentage
Wines can range from around 7-20%. The lower the percentage, the sweeter the wine. A Dessert wine will traditionally be a low percentage, as not all of the grape sugar will have been fermented into alcohol. The higher the percentage, the drier the wine. A dry wine tastes, as I am sure you can imagine - not so sweet. Sticking to around 11.5-13.5% is a safe bet in my eyes.

5. The grape(s)
Some popular grape names you may have heard through the grapevine, include ‘Tempranillo’ and ‘Merlot’. Some wines consist of only one variety of grape, whilst others can include several. A revero, for example, is 70% Pardina and 30% Macabeo. Some can include a multitude of four varieties of grape, adding a more varied taste.

6. Vintage
The vintage simply means the year that the grapes were harvested. N.V, as is seen on champagne labels, signifies a ‘Non Vintage Wine’, as Champagne is traditionally made through blending multiple grapes harvested in different year’s together. A region's weather patterns in a specific year may positively or adversely affect the grape type - leading to a wine that some experts may describe as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ vintage. 

And now you’re good to go! Pour yourself a glass, it’s on the house.