For the average wine consumer, there is a plethora of intimidation associated with wine buying. This is a feeling that is most often associated with not understanding wine labels. New world wines tend to make it easier - wines bottled in Australia, South America and the United States are often more direct in their presentation of the type of wine and the name of the vineyard. On the other hand, old world wine labels like those from France, Italy, Spain and Germany carry with them loads of classifications, harvest-types, town names, vineyard titles and producer idiosyncrasies - all in a foreign language. While these labels embody the wonderfully classic aesthetic associated with a good looking wine label, they almost always cause a cocking of the head for the average wine buyer.
In an effort to make the process less of a mess and more fun for those unmoved with the prospect of memorizing a pocket dictionary worth of French, Italian, Spanish and German wine terms, here is a list of the top ten things to look for on a wine label. The first five are things you want to look for, and the last five are items that should raise a flag of caution or don't mean what you think they should.
If there's one term you should learn when looking for a good French wine, it's Cru. The infamous wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace in France will carry the term Cru somewhere on the label to indicate that the wine is from a town or producer of high quality.
2. Poor Soil / Deprived of Water
This will be something you read on the back of the wine label if there is a description. Sure - it sounds counter-intuitive, but wine that is grown in poor soil and deprived of water irrigation is actually likely to be of higher quality. Why? Because when a vine is deprived of excess water and nutrients, it will channel more of its energy into ripening the fruit rather than producing bright and vibrant leaves. The result is a higher quality grape harvest.
3. Methode Traditionelle (Traditional Method)
This applies primarily to sparkling wine made in the United States and Australia. If you see Traditional Method on the label of a new world wine it means that it is made in the same way as traditional Champagne, and will often be less expensive!
4. Vieilles Vignes (Old Vines)
Similar to the concept of vines grown in poor soil with minimal irrigation, vines that are considered old vines have more concentrated juices. The result is a vine that produces wines with denser, richer flavors. And as the juice is more robust, so usually are the other aspects of the grape, including the tannin and the acidity. A reference to Old vines either on the front or the back label is a positive indication of the wine's quality. This will be called Vieilles Vignes on French Wines.
5. Estate Bottled
On a bottle of French wine, you will see this labeled as Mis en Bouteille au Chateau, Mis en Bouteille au Domaine, or Mis en Bouteille au Propriete. The concept of an estate bottled wine is that it was grown, produced and bottled at the same location. There is an inference that the wine maker takes a great deal of pride in all aspects of the wine making process and wants the world to know that he or she oversees every element of the wine's production. As such, it is typically a reference to higher quality wine.
6. Odd Sounding or Unfamiliar Wine Awards
This is something that should raise a red flag. Australia notoriously has problems with wine makers placing gold, silver or bronze stickers on their wine labels that boast winning an award at an esoteric wine festival. Until very recently, there was no regulation in place for what type of award was worthy of placing on a wine label. If you do see award-winning stickers, make sure that the event sounds familiar or at least sounds large. You don't want to end up with a wine that won an award at a bake sale.
7. Flowery Marketing Terms
Most consumers have no problem identifying marketing adjectives from legitimate inferences to why a product is high-quality. Be wary of terms that a marketer developed while staying up late at the local caf? in the midst of a brain-storming frenzy. Anything that is trying to sound impressive by using words like exceptional, from wine maker's personal bin, or limited release is most likely trying to sell the wine based on gimmicks rather than on its quality.
8. Vague Geological References
High quality wines are usually a reflection of the unique characteristics of the small plot of land on which the grapes were grown. Wine makers will want to highlight this fact by referencing their specific region or town and the vineyard name. Be cautious of wine labels that reference a vague geographical space without getting more specific. South-Eastern Australia is a notorious labeling term you will find on Australian wines, which is about as specific as saying This Wine Was Made on Planet Earth. South-Eastern Australia includes the majority of the country's wine growing regions. Similarly, a wine that only says California Wine, or French Wine without honing in on towns or more isolated regions should be avoided.
9. Grand Vin
A Grand Vin term on a French wine label simply refers to the fact that the wine is the primary one produced at that vineyard. It is often confused with Vieilles Vignes (Old Vine), which is a reflection of quality. Grand Vin is a neutral term that will give you little indication either way.
This labeling term causes confusion similar to Grand Vine listed above. It sounds cool but all it really refers to is the fact that a French or an Italian wine has a higher alcohol content than what it is traditionally known for.
The art of understanding the wine label can be the journey of a lifetime, but there's no reason why the average consumer can't get a leg up by understanding some of the key items to recognize. The most important thing is to have a sense of adventure and continue to explore new wines. Taste them and see how the label reflects what you like (or don't like) about the wine. If it was flat and watery, were there gimmicky marketing terms that were used in the description? If it was full, balanced and complex, did it have a reference to Old Vines? The terms listed here will help equally with choosing wine off of a menu at a restaurant as buying a bottle in a store. Listen closely to the waiter or sommelier's description. You never know what gems you can find by simply being aware of the terms listed here!
Tynan Szvetecz is an editor for http://www.savoreachglass.com, an international wine directory that is helping explore the spirit of wine for a new generation. Wine hobbyists, sommeliers, merchants and growers have all come together to contribute content to this directory in an effort to make it as informative and easy to use as possible.