American wine labels are pretty straight-forward. First of all they’re in English, which, even though I was born and raised on Chicago’s south side, I still consider my native tongue! But there are some basic things to know about US wine labeling that can help you make better wine buying and drinking decisions. To me one of the most important things to know is that the more specifically identified the wine in the bottle is identified on the bottle, the greater the potential for a higher quality, better sipping experience once you pop it open. Here’s what I mean.
There are certain pieces of information that are required by law to be on the label and they are what you’d expect – brand name/name of the producer/winery, alcohol content, sulfite warning, health warning, where the wine is from, etc. But there are lots of other things that are permitted and that’s where a little knowledge helps sort it out. Here are the most common and most important and the label image is there to guide you visually – Ballentine Vineyards 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Estate Grown, Pocai Vineyard:
- Vintage: Vintage matters. It’s all about the growing season. Was it too cold early or too hot late? Was there lots of rain or none? Hail? Winds? Sunny or cloudy? Wine is an agricultural product that Mother Nature has a lot to say about. If there is a year on the label (or on a separate smaller label on the bottle) then, in general, at least 95% of the grapes had to be harvested in that year. I say in general because wines from broader regions, like whole states or counties, can have that reduced to 85%, which is similar to the regional wines in Europe.
- Grape Variety: Pretty basic but you’d like to know what you’re drinking, right? But for that grape to be on the label then at least 75% of the stuff in the bottle must be from that grape and the place named. So if the label says Cabernet Franc you can be assured that 75% of it is Cabernet Franc. If no one grape is 75% of the wine in the bottle then it has to be labeled simply Red Wine or White Wine – this is where you find branded, proprietary blends (example is Oracle from Miner), or may see the word Meritage, which signifies the use of the Bordeaux varieties and membership in an association with governing rules – or each grape in the blend must be identified.
- Appellation: “Where you from?” The appellation named on the label go from broadest to most refined – Country, State, AVA (American Viticultural Area) and Vineyard.
- The general rule is that 75% of the grapes come from that state, but its not that simple since a couple of states (California and Oregon) have more stringent labeling regulations. So a wine labeled “California Chardonnay” must have 100% of those Chardonnay grapes from California.
- AVAs are key to label reading. There are 230 AVAs in the US and if the AVA is on the label then 85% of the wine is from there. AVAs are places like Napa Valley (pictured), Russian River, Columbia Valley, Sonoma Coast, etc. Here’s a link to the full list: AVA List
- Single vineyard name: And if there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard. (Pocai Vineyard pictured)
- Estate designation: If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. (“Estate Grown” pictured).
I always look at the label. I want to know as much about that bottle as possible. And when I see more narrowly defined sources for the wine my going in assumption is that the potential is there for wine that has had more focus and attention brought to it from the vineyard to the winery to the bottle – and then to me!