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Two Women on Wine: Demystifying U.S. wine labels

Learn your varietals, vintages and ‘old vines’

Posted: October 29, 2010 4:50 p.m.
Updated: October 29, 2010 4:50 p.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier
Lil Lepore and Shari Frazier

Navigating the world of wine can be intimating to the novice and, sometimes, even to the wine aficionado. We admit, deciphering wine labels when you're selecting wine can be confusing and frustrating.

We'll also be the first to tell you that you don't need to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if you do not completely understand everything on a wine label. As an aside, reading U.S. wine labels is a little bit easier than European labels, which is a topic we will tackle at another time. To get started, we've outlined some tips and terms you'll find useful when navigating the sea of wine labels.

The following elements are listed on wines originating in the U.S.: producer, region, vintage, varietal, name of the wine, alcohol content, sulfite information, tasting notes, producer information, and government warning. Some of this information is on the front label; other information must be on the back.

Besides the wine producer, the varietal is probably the most prominent and important information on the front label. In the U.S., most wines are named for the grape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is named after the grape of the same name. By law, the wine must consist of at least 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.
The names of wine growing regions may also be found on many U.S. wines. Certain place names, known as appellations, are officially registered and regulated according to a system called the American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Napa Valley is an example of one of many AVAs. In order for Napa Valley to appear on a label, at least 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be grown in that area.

If a vintage year appears on a label, that means at least 95 percent of the grapes used to make that wine were harvested in that year. For example, the vintage year 2007 appearing on the label of a bottle of Merlot, means 95 percent of the grapes used were harvested in 2007. The vintage year is a point of reference because some years are better for grape harvests than others. Also, some wines improve as they age in the bottle.

We like to see "estate-bottled" on a label. Only a wine producer who has grown the grapes or closely supervised the growing, produced the wine and bottled it can label the wine "estate bottled." No fruit from other sources can be used to produce the wine. If the label also includes an AVA, such as Paso Robles, we know that every aspect of making that wine, from growing the grapes to bottling the finished wine, was done within that region.

A similar, more common description is "grown, produced and bottled." A wine "grown, produced and bottled" in Santa Ynez Valley, for example, contains some grapes that the winemaker grew outside the Santa Ynez Valley.

"Produced and bottled" means the winemaker bought the grapes from other sources, then produced and bottled the wine. You may see the region listed as "California" or "Central Coast" on the label. This tells you the grapes were sourced and blended from various regions - Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Monterey, as examples - to create that particular wine. Often these wines are wonderful because you have the best of several different terroirs.

On the other hand, "bottled" or "cellared" are vague terms that mean the wine producer didn't have anything to do with growing the grapes or making the wine. Often a wine producer will buy finished wines to blend in order to produce, bottle and, perhaps, cellar an inexpensive product.

Be wary of the term "reserve," which implies the wine has some special characteristic. In truth, it just sounds good. There are no legal requirements in the U.S. that define "reserve," so its presence on a label doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.

"Old vine" is another unregulated term commonly used when referring to Zinfandel. To designate a wine "old vine", the vines should be as least 50 years or older. One of the oldest vines in Southern California is in Rancho Cucamonga, which was planted in the late 1800's.

The back label typically has producer information, government warnings and, sometimes, tasting notes and information about the winery, as well as alcohol content.

Straightforward information, such as alcohol content, needs no decoding. Rule of thumb: the higher the alcohol content, the bigger the wine. Pinot Noir, which typically ranges from 12.5 - 13.5 percent, is lighter in body than Cabernet Sauvignon (14.5 - 15.5 percent), which is bigger and bolder.

Then again, it could be the attractive label that catches your eye and makes the purchase decision for you. Whatever you decide, we say, "Cheers!"


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