How To Read A Wine Label

In the carefree days of my callow youth, your intrepid liquor reporter was perfectly content to be drinking Blue Nun or Baby Duck straight from the bottle, or perhaps with a little bit of discretion by keeping the brown paper bag over the label to hide my shame.

With the fullness of time, and the gradual yet persistent increase in wine snobbery as I have aged, those halcyon days of youth are now behind me.

Indeed, for the wine snob of today, showing off the label is important when in the company of your fellow wine snobs, as the others can ooh and ahh over your wise purchase.

Reading the label can be a challenge for the wine novice and expert alike, and has caused much apprehension to the hapless consumer standing amongst the countless rows of confusing labels at your local booze merchant.

Fear not, gentle reader, for your humble narrator is here to enlighten.

We can divide wine labels pretty quickly between Old World and New World. Old World wines are basically Western Europe, while New World wines are everywhere else.

To use wine snob terms, Old World wines are labeled according to appellation, while New World wines are labeled according to varietal.

Roughly translated, this means that a French wine label will tell you the village the wine was made in, but not the type of wine in the bottle. The same wine from an Australian producer will tell you the type of wine in the bottle, but not the specific village it was made.

The New World wine producers don’t have centuries of tradition and byzantine legal regulations that restrict what they put on their wine labels, so they are much simpler for the consumer to understand.

To give you an example of a New World wine label, let’s consider Australia’s famous Little Penguin Shiraz. Just like the label hints at, it is a bottle of Shiraz, and it has a picture of a cute little penguin on the front. Nice and easy to pick out at the store, and you know exactly what you are getting.

Now let’s consider a similar wine from the Old World. Shiraz and Syrah are just different names for the same grape, so let’s consider a Syrah from the famed Burgundy region of France, generally considered the traditional home of some of the finest wines in the world.

Take a bottle of Syrah from the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region in the south of France. You won’t actually see the word Syrah anywhere on the label.

The name of the village closest to the vineyard will certainly be there, and if it is a particularly good wine, the name of the Château (aka winery) will be listed on the label as well.

Throw in a bunch of other legal gobbledygook like the postal code of the bottler and/or importer, and you have a whole bunch of unhelpful information on an Old World wine label.

Yes, gentle reader, those stuffy French winemakers think that their wine is so good that you should just know what kind of grapes they grow in the village listed on the label, and if you don’t already know that, maybe you are not the type of lowbrow plebian they want to be drinking their wine anyway.

Never mind that there are literally thousands of villages surrounded by vineyards in France, and different grapes are grown in different parts of the country, and you probably have higher priorities than memorizing which grapes are grown in each different village.

The overly confusing labels are one of the reasons that the Old World countries like France and Italy are rapidly losing international market share to places like Australia or California.

The New World producers have made their labels much easier to recognize on a crowded shelf, and being able to easily find the bottle with the cute little Penguin on the front means more consumers are doing just that.

Some of the snooty old winemakers in France have recognized this trend, and are cautiously dipping their toes into the so-called critter labels, with the grape varietal clearly shown on the bottle, and a cute little animal to make it easy to remember on your next visit to the neighborhood booze merchant.

Check it out the next time you are buying a bottle of wine, and decide for yourself.

About the author

Nick Jeffrey

Nick Jeffrey

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