When you step into a wine shop or the wine section of your local supermarket, you may feel bombarded with a plethora of options, each having its own unique label on the bottle. So, how do you decide which to buy? Most of us should be familiar with the old adage, “never judge a book by its cover.” Well, the same holds true for a bottle of wine – never judge a bottle of wine by its label design. Marketers and graphic design artists work hard to create attention-grabbing labels. This is not to say wine bottles with artistic or brightly colored label designs don’t contain quality wine, but I’ve also tasted some great wines whose bottles had the simplest labels. When I’m interested in buying a book, of course I take notice of its cover. However, I also read the description on the back as well as the table of contents and author’s bio. I even skim through a few chapters before making my decision. A bottle of wine also contains key information on its label, providing a good indication of its contents. The following are some key things a wine label tells you.

1. Producer or Brand

The name of the producer identifies who made the wine. The brand can be just the name of a wine. One or the other is required on each bottle of wine. If there is no brand name on the label then the producer is considered the brand. A single winery may have several brands.

2. Region and Vineyard

A region is a geographically distinct wine-producing area. In a broad sense, regions are wine-producing countries such as France, United States, Italy, etc. Though, each country can be separated further into sub-regions. For example, California is a wine-producing region in the United States and Burgundy is a wine-producing region in France. This can go even further as Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are wine-producing regions in California. It can be narrowed down all the way to a specific vineyard. Typically, the more specific the source, the higher the quality and price of the wine.

3. Varietal or Appellation

Varietal is the name of the dominant grape used in the wine. Some examples are Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. If a varietal is designated on a wine’s label then the wine must be made from at least 75% of that variety of grape and an appellation of origin also must be listed on the label.

Appellation is a legally defined and designated wine-producing area. Each appellation has its own set of rules enforced by the country’s government covering a variety of criteria for growing grapes and producing wine to ensure quality and consistency. For instance, many appellations dictate where the grapes in a wine were grown as well as which grapes were used and how they were fermented. However, this type of system is more concentrated in Europe. The United States equivalent, the American Viticultural Area system, restricts the use of certain regional names such as Napa Valley or Russian River Valley, but it does not restrict the type of grape used. Some of the main countries using appellations are France (separated into areas identified as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), Italy (areas named Denominazione di Origine Controlada), Spain (areas called Denominación de Origen), and the United States (defined areas called American Viticultural Areas). On a wine label, appellation identifies the place where at least 75% of the grapes used in the wine were grown.

 4. Estate Bottled

If a wine label reads “estate bottled,” it means 100% of the wine was made using grapes grown on land owned by the winery and the winery crushed and fermented the grapes and finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a steady process on the same property. The winery and vineyard must be located within the same viticultural area.

5. Vintage Date

Vintage date is the year in which the grapes used to make the wine were harvested. A vintage date may or may not be on a wine label. However, if a vintage date is listed then it must show a region smaller than a country. If it uses a state or county, or the foreign equivalent then 85% of the grapes used must be from the same year. If an appellation or viticultural area is used then the percentage increases to 95%. Vintage date is important because it can reveal the quality of the grapes used in the wine. Some years may be better than others due to varying weather conditions and their effect on the harvest.

6. Alcohol Content

Alcohol content appears as a percentage by volume on most bottles. An alternative may be a label that reads “Table Wine” or “Light Wine” for wines with an alcohol content between 7 and 14 percent. Alcohol content can be a good indication of the body of a wine. Wines with a higher alcohol content, around 13% or above, are full-bodied and more tannic. Wines at or above 18% indicate it’s a fortified wine such as Port or Sherry. Wines with a lower alcohol content, below 11%, typically are lighter and sweeter due to residual sugar that was not converted to alcohol during the fermentation process.


Getting back to the book analogy, I like to compare the producer or brand to that of a book’s author. Once you become familiar with a particular author, you will know if they have a reputation for writing good books or not. The same is true with wine producers. The other elements of a wine label are sort of like reading the table of contents of a book.  Some producers take it even a step further and include tasting notes on the back of the label, which I like to compare to reading the summary on a book’s back cover. The following example is taken verbatim from a wine label:

“Deep, ruby red color with inky, black tones. Ripe raspberry/cherry aromas on the nose, with spicy vanilla notes from 9 months aging in oak barrels. Smooth and polished on the palate, with a supple texture, bright fruit flavors and a lingering finish.”

You can learn a lot about a wine by its label. Don’t fall victim to the craftiness of marketers and graphic designers. What does the label tell you about the wine’s quality? Is it a light, medium, or full-bodied wine? Is it sweet? Is it tannic? What variety of grape was used to make the wine? Was it made using a 100% of the same grape? Was the vintage year a good year for the particular region? The more you learn and practice reading wine labels, the better you will be at identifying a good wine when out shopping. Tasting the wine is like skimming through and reading the pages of a book. If you ever have the chance to taste a wine before you buy it then by all means do it.