how to read a wine label

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wine labeling

by James Selby

Labels are the calling cards of wine.
Here are some ABCs in decoding them.

AVA (USA), AOC (France), DO (Spain), DOC (Italy, Portugal), QbA or QmP (Germany) are acronyms for each country’s regulatory bureaus, designating climatic and geographic region, as well as quality. Each country has different standards for what’s required.

In the United States, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau regulates what goes in a bottle and on the label. Along with a producer name the grape variety is listed, such as chardonnay, merlot, or pinot noir, and 75% of the wine contained must be from that grape; the remainder may be other varieties. Wines using a state name (Oregon or California) or county (Santa Barbara or Sonoma) are allowed if 75% of the grapes come from the named state or county. The balance may be from elsewhere. If an American Viticultural Area (AVA) is listed, it’s held to a higher standard, guaranteeing 85% of the grapes are grown within the specified region. Napa Valley itself is an AVA; within it exist 16 nested AVAs, like Yountville, Mt. Veeder, or Stags Leap District, further refining where the grapes are sourced. “Estate bottled” means the winery grew 100% of the grapes on land it owns or controls, and the wine was produced on its premises. This also implies integrity of farming. Grapes in a “single vineyard” wine come wholly from that vineyard.

Not every term is an indication of quality. “Reserve” on an American label is not defined, whereas in Spain, “Reserva” certifies strict aging requirements, with a minimum of four years. A “proprietary” wine like “Opus One,” “Insignia,” or “Oracle,” is a fanciful brand name of a winery’s prestigious offering and may be priced accordingly.

Keeping a few of these designations in mind will change your next wine shopping trip from a guessing game based on pretty labels to a more knowledgeable, and more satisfying, purchasing experience.