Understanding the label on the wine bottle

Posted by Guy Heywood on

It has always been of great amusement to me how the wine aisles in the supermarket are full of many wine bottles stacked floor to ceiling where they are just out of reach for the shorter wine drinker.

The display of bottles would be impressive, if it wasn’t all just thrown up with a sign: Wine from France, Wine from Spain, Wine from Italy, Wine from Australia. Or the perhaps more aptly: New World Wines! Exclamation mark pronounced with full effect!  It makes me wonder how much of the wine being bought is simply done so because of their well known brands or appellations, not because of the quality of the wine or the wine producer itself.

Rioja, for example, is usually a sound choice and so is Chardonnay, and they’re known for being so. I imagine broad terms like these indicated on big clear labels, are ultimately the best sellers.

I also find it puzzling that this section of the supermarket is where a supermarket customer ponders and spends the most time deciding what to purchase, and yet does the buyer actually know what they’re looking at? Does the same thought process and label checking go into buying bread? I doubt it.

How much do we really know about what the wine label is telling us? Do we really understand what we’re reading?

To help answer and provide some clues, here are my notes on the next part of the Wine Spirit and Educational Trust course. Note - for full text see the Wine Spirit and Educational Trust (WSET).

WSET Understanding a Label.

The most prominent pieces of information on most wine labels are usually the brand or producer, the country or region, and/or the variety of grape used to make wine.

Producers and Brands

The name of the Producer, Brand, Distributor or Retailer will be found on the label. Some brand names are created by or reflect the producer, these include Chateau or estate names and large scale brands such as Jacob’s Creek. Some of the names are created by the distributors or retailers. These include buyer’s-own-brands, BOBs, such as wines sold under the name of supermarket. For many consumers, the names of grape varieties, Chardonnay, Shiraz and regions Chablis, Sancerre, act just like brands. They help the consumer make a decision by the predetermined expectation of what the wine may be like. If those expectations are positive then the labeling will help to sell the wine.


The vintage, if there is one, will usually be displayed on the label. The Vintage is the year in which the grapes are harvested so indicates the age of the wine. The majority of wines are best consumed when they’re young and should not be aged. For a few prestigious, age-worthy wines, vintages make a huge difference. For example the price and quality of a 2009 wine from a good estate in Bordeaux will be much higher than that of the 2007. This is because in 2009 the weather conditions where near perfect and so aided a perfect harvest, whereas 2007 was not and therefore the wines from this vintage are less complex and unlikely to last as long.

Wines from each hemisphere are harvested at different times due to the change in seasons. Southern hemisphere vineyards harvest from February to March and Northern hemisphere vineyards from September to October. As a result southern hemisphere wines will be half a year older than northern hemisphere wines from the same vintage.

Geographical Indications

Geographical Indications (GI) are common to all wine regions and are a common feature on wine labels. This is because the area where the grapes are grown has a defining influence on the style, quality and flavour of the wine. A GI is a designated vineyard area within a country. It can be an entire region, such as Bordeaux, or cover just a small vineyard. The use of Geographical Indications are tightly controlled to ensure that the consumer gets what they’re paying for and that the wine is made  and grown where it says it is on the label.

The rules and regulations are very complex,  however throughout the world wine can be divided into two categories:

Wines with GI

Wines without GI

European union (EU)

The EU wines with a GI are divided into two quality categories:

Wines with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and;

Wines with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).

Although these are label terms, they rarely appear on the labels and producers instead like to go for long-established  traditional labelling terms, such as Appellation D’Origine Controlee in France.

Broadly speaking PDOs are smaller areas with more tightly controlled and defined regulations, whereas PGIs are larger with fewer controls.

Importantly these GIs not only define the geographical area of a region but also specify permitted vine growing and winemaking techniques and grape varieties. In theory, each PDO has a unique flavour that cannot be simulated by another wine because the wine must be made in accordance to the laws that specify: the limits of the area, the permitted vine growing and winemaking techniques, and the permitted grape varieties.

PDO wines rarely state the grape variety on the label. This can mean that some of the finest expressions of Chardonnay, for example, come in bottles labelled as Chablis AC or Meursault AC.

Due to the restrictions that PDO wines have, some wine producers prefer to make wines in the PGI category because it allows the use of non-traditional varieties in blend. (eg Chardonnay in the South of France). These produce large quantities of inexpensive wines from international grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

The variety or blend is usually stated on the label, if not the wine is usually made from lesser-known local grape varieties.

A wine without a GI means there are less rules on production and a brand owner can source grapes throughout the country.

France - The traditional labeling term for PDO is Appellation d’Origine Controlee ( AC or AOC).

The traditional labeling term for PGI wines is Vin de Pays (VdP). However, some of these regions, particular the Pays d’Oc, prefer not to use VdP and choose instead to use the French for PGI, Indication Geographique Protegee (IGP). Wines without a GI are labelled as Vin de France.

Italy - There are two traditional labelling terms that are used instead of the PDO. The most important, used by only a select number of regions, is Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). The other is Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The Italian labelling term for PGI is traditionally referred to as Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). This is equivalent to the French’s Vin de Pays. Some IGTs are vast and widely used, eg IGT Sicila and others are seldom seen.

Spain - has several traditional labelling terms for PDO. Two are more widely used than the rest. The most prestigious, used by only two regions, is Denominacion  de Origen Calificada (DOCa). The other is Denominacion de Origen (DO). The traditional Spanish labelling term for PGI is vino de la Tierra (VdIT).

Germany - has two traditional labelling terms that they use instead of PDO: Qualitatswein and Pradikatswein. These terms, unlike the other countries, are not used to determine a quality hierarchy. Wines that produced under these categories must be produced under one of Germany’s 13 designated wine regions. Wines that are labelled Pradikatswein are subdivided into six sub-categories that are defined by the sugar level of the grapes at harvest. The term for PGI in Germany is Landwein, although the PGI category is not as widely used in Germany.

New World

Nearly all non-EU wines in the international market fall into the category of ‘Wines with a GI’. Each country has developed its own way of dividing its GI vineyard areas. THis could be political boundaries, or other specific areas, such as regions,zones districts and so on. Each control the use of their names. However unlike in the EU, these legal categories are rarely seen on the label.

Legally Defined Quality Indications

As well as PDOs and PGIs, most Eu countries have other labelling terms that indicate quality defined in their wine laws.

France - most appellations are subdivide into quality hierarchy, with the most prestigious  covering the smallest areas and having the strictest regulations. Labelling terms are used to indicate these hierarchies, including Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru.

Each of the wine regions in France use these terms slightly differently.

Italy - two important terms appear on Italian wine labels: Classico and Riserva.

Spain - The categories for Spanish wines are defined by the minimum length of time the wine must be aged for, both in barrel and bottle, before being released for sale. Because these vary from one region to the other, they are often exceed by the producers. THe period of ageing can have significant impact on the style and quality of a wine. IN order of increasing age they are:

Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Germany - As mentioned above within the Pradikatatswein category there is a hierarchy of designations that are defined by the sugar level content of the grapes at the time of harvest.

These are divided into six sub-categories in order of minimum sugar level, from lowest to highest. They are:  Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, BA (Beerenauslese), Eiswein and TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese). These categories can apply to all grape varieties, though the best examples are made with Riesling.

Wine producers outside of the EU may not have as tight regulations as those within the EU, which enables them more experimentation in terms of vine growing and winemaking techniques, they’re still governed by their own countries laws to in terms of labelling to protect and prevent the consumer from being mis informed. It is also worth noting that to import wine into the EU, the EU’s laws for wine production techniques have to be met.

Style and Production techniques

Apart from the variety, the region and the brand, the most common terms found on wine labels are indications of style or production techniques. Those that are in english are generally self explanatory, ‘hand-harvest’ for example. Ones that aren’t in english are usually just simple translations of of words such as ‘red wine’.

Barrel/barrique-fermented (white wines only) - Fermenting the wine in oak gives a better integration of oak flavours in the wine, but is more labour intensive than ageing in oak and so more expensive.

Barrel/barrique-aged - Many wines are aged in oak barrels or barrique prior to bottling. New oak barrels give a wine more oak flavours than used ones do. It is worth noting that the label may say ‘new oak’.

Oaked - This indicates that the wine has been in contact with oak. It could be through ageing in oak vessels during the maturation process. Alternatively, it could indicate the use of oak staves or chips, which would not be found in premium-quality wines.

Unfined/Unfiltered - Most wines are treated before bottling to remove anything that may cause haziness. Some producers argue that a side effect of fining or filtration is that too much of the character is stripped away and so avoid clarifying their wines before bottling. It could be indicated on the bottle by stating that the wine is unfined or unfiltered. These wines are more likely to form deposits in the bottle as they age and are less likely to be clear and bright in the glass.

Botrytis cinerea/Noble rot - Botrytis is a fungus, or mould, that attacks grape berries. If it attacks healthy, ripe grapes it causes desirable noble rot used in the production of sweet wines. In certain circumstances it will form unwanted grey rot. Some producers will choose not to use the term cinerea on the label.

Organic -  Wine made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are called ‘organic’. Biodynamics is a system of organic grape growing and winemaking activities to the positions of the moon, planets and stars.

Cuvee - A common labelling term widely used to indicate a specific blend or selection. This could be a different blend of varieties, regions, vintages, or even different barrels or vats from the same estate or vineyard. It is often accompanied with a particular name. Producers often use this term to indicate the better wines in their range. There are no legal controls on this term, so it cannot be used as an indication of quality.

Old vine/Vieilles vignes - Old vines , or in French vieilles vignes, typically give lower yields of higher quality grapes. This is not a legally defined term and as result there can be some controversy over the use of this term.

An Estate (Chateau, Domaine) only uses grapes grape grown on its own land. A Merchant or Negociant blends wines bought in from winemakers and farmers to create a ‘blend’. The words Merchant or Negociant rarely appear on a bottle but most medium or large volume brands follow this model.

A co-operative cellar (cave cooperative,cantina sociale) is a winemaking facility whose ownership is shared by a number of grape farmers.

I hope the above helps you make an informed decision on your next purchase of wine!

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