Pacific Northwest | March 7, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMarch 7, home
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Clues You Can Use
To know your wine better, look at the labels
DECODING A WINE label is a bit like reading a good mystery. Not a thriller, necessarily, but a tantalizing document littered with hidden clues. The payoff is solving the mystery of what's inside the bottle — before you plunk down your hard-earned money.

A little bit of memorization is required, but nothing too demanding. The way to get a handle on unknown wine labels is to understand the basic information that appears on all labels. Much of this information is mandated by the regulatory agencies of the country in which the wine is produced, then amended by the rules of the country in which the wine is sold.

An example of an add-on is the government warning that appears on the back label of all wine sold in the United States. Pregnant women and operators of heavy machinery are left to their own devices in the rest of the world; here, it is mandatory that they be steered clear of a glass of wine.

More helpfully, all wine labels must include an indication of the place of origin, the volume of the contents (750ml is a regular-sized wine bottle, 375ml a half bottle, and 187ml an airplane bottle), the alcohol content (expressed as a percentage, rather than as a proof, as with distilled spirits), a vintage year (if appropriate), and a producer's name and address.

Most labels also include a great deal of other, useful information such as vineyard site, blend of grapes, winemaking practices, name of importer and residual sugar. All give good clues as to the style of wine.

A good way to begin learning about these things is to spend a moment studying the label of any bottle of wine you happen to be enjoying with your dinner. Yes, that certainly is a wonderful picture of a flower/butterfly/rock/castle in the center, but what else might it be telling you?

First, what country is it from? Somewhere, usually in small print near the bar code and warning label, it will have the name of a producer and an address with a town and country. Most wines will either be from somewhere in Europe (old world) or from North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa (new world).

This is crucial, because old-world wines are labeled according to a different set of guidelines than new-world wines. If you are drinking a European wine, it most likely will not have the name of the grape varietal prominently displayed. There are exceptions, of course, but the best European wines still feature the name of a place rather than the name of a grape.

It's important to understand that Chianti is a place, as are Chablis, Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja and Barolo. Much confusion has arisen because such place names have been "borrowed" by new-world wineries and attached to wines that were not entitled to them. You will still see California "Mountain Burgundy" and "Chablis" marketed; these jug wines are not good enough to qualify for varietal labeling.

Back to that wine on your dinner table. If it is new-world, it will probably have a varietal grape name. You're likely to encounter only a dozen or so major grape names, and it's worth memorizing them. Among white wines, the most common varietal grapes are riesling, chardonnay, pinot gris (or grigio), sauvignon (or fumé) blanc, semillon and gewürztraminer. Among reds, the names you'll see most often are merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah (or shiraz), zinfandel, pinot noir and sangiovese. There are others, but if you know the major ones you've got 98 percent of the wines covered.

Knowing the name of the grape gives you a hook on which to hang your flavor impressions. Look closely, the label may give you very specific information about where those grapes were grown. In America, official viticultural areas are called AVAs. Most often, they are named for a significant geopolitical feature, such as a county, valley or mountain.

The better the wine, the more information on the label. Some wines carry the name of the grape, the AVA and the vineyard. Such "single-vineyard" wines offer more precisely-defined flavors. Because they are often very limited in production, they can command very high prices. Here in Washington, the Klipsun vineyard on Red Mountain (the AVA) is often referenced on labels because it is considered to be among the best sources of grapes in the state.

Old-world wines that simply carry varietal names are usually of lesser pedigree, though they may still be quite good. In the Mosel region of Germany, for example, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt labels its everyday wine RK Riesling, because it is a blend of grapes from a variety of vineyards. Its better wine carries the tongue-numbing moniker Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett, which gives you the producer, the town (Scharzhofberg) and the classification (Kabinett).

Most European wines are classified according to each country's appellation laws. These define precise geographical areas that are entitled to use specific names for their wines. For example, Champagne must be produced in the region of Champagne, Bordeaux within the defined borders of Bordeaux, etc. On a French wine, the label will read 'Appellation Controlée' (AOC); in Italy, it will read 'Denominazione di Origine Controllata' (DOC or DOCD); in Spain, 'Denominacion de Origen.' In Germany, look for 'Qualitatswein mit Pradikat' (QmP).

The most important piece of information on a wine label is the name of the producer. This may be a winery or a person; fictitious or real, but it is a trademarked name and will appear on other wines from the same entity. If you like one wine from a producer, the odds favor that you will like others.

Paul Gregutt is a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times assistant art director.

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