Benjamin Mitrofan-Norris on March 14, 2016 1 Comment We’ve all been there–staring blankly at the myriad of bottles on the shelves of our local wine store, trying desperately to decode the information on the label, before giving in and selecting one with an attractive picture, or just picking out one with a familiar grape varietal listed in big, curly letters. While this haphazard method can often lead to us discovering a new favorite (and it cannot be denied that choosing wine based on grape variety is an effective way to make reliable food pairings), it can more often than not leave us feeling a little lost and uninformed when trying to decided between two similar bottles, or find the very best examples of wines from those prized regions where grape varietals and blends are not even listed anywhere on the label. In many of the best wine producing countries of the Old World, and in the key regions of France, Italy and Spain among others, wine labels are something of a language of their own, needing a little deciphering and deeper understanding in order to ensure we know for what we are parting with our hard earned money. Many people would argue that this complex and often somewhat haughty arrangement is designed to continue the slight elitism the wine industry is occasionally criticized for, but the truth is, the best regions in the world are awash with stringent rules and traditions which must be followed to the letter in order to ensure the continued high reputation and level of excellence which established their success in the first place. Understanding the labels on these bottles essentially means understanding the way the wine laws in these countries work, and hopefully, with a little background information, we can begin selecting our wines with a little more savoir-faire and effectiveness. The Essential Information There are several key components to any wine label which can help us understand what is in each bottle. For New World and more modern wineries, often the most visually obvious part of the label will be the name of the wine itself, or the name of the producer of the wine. Nowadays, lots of wineries are giving their wines big, brash and occasionally ironic names, which are supposed to give away some clues as to the nature of the wine. As such, if you find a wine with a name like ‘Peach Blush’ or ‘Flinty Red’, we don’t really have to speculate too much as to the taste of the wine it is representing. In fact, more often than not, if you can only really find such a name on the label, it is more than likely this is a wine produced by a ‘brand’ or big, mass producer of drinks. If this is your cup of tea, then go for it; however, it is unlikely you’re going to find any wine of real character or distinction coming from such producers. Isn’t part of the appeal of a good wine the task of exploring the taste, aroma and notes, rather than having them explained to you by the very name of the bottle? Many wineries across the world label their wines simply by giving the name of the predominant grape varietal used, which makes things a little simpler. Regions, Countries and Appellations There will almost always be a region given on the label. However, we can generally tell something of the quality of the wine by how specific the region given is. To give a classic example, any French wine which has ‘Vin de France’ on the label–that is, a very large and unspecific region–has not been deemed of a high enough quality to represent any particular smaller region or appellation. Wines labeled ‘Bordeaux’, or ‘Burgundy’ or ‘Loire’ will be of a slightly higher quality, as they are tying themselves to a particular region and set of traditions and expectations. However, to seek out the more refined examples, we need to look for those wines which list the specific appellation, village, sub-region or chateau etc, as these will be tried and tested bottles which the local authorities are proud to have bearing a particular name, and which are believed to be upholding the traditions and standards of the place they are from. It’s All in the Blend Most bottles will list the variety of grape they are made from, especially those from the New World. However, in France, Spain, Italy and other Old World wine producing countries, there is a far greater emphasis on site-specific blends of grape varietals, and rarely will you find a list of these fruit species anywhere on the bottle. This is because certain appellations and sub-regions are governed by strict rules on which grape varietals are allowed to be used in local wine production, and in which percentages. The idea behind this is to enhance the reliability of the wines representing the region, but also to preserve traditional techniques and ensure that the land and terroir the wineries are using stick to historic vines which are unlikely to disturb the enshrined ecological balance they believe brings such character to their produce. Getting to know the individual blends of each appellation can be hard work, but very rewarding, and, as mentioned earlier, the smaller the listed region on the bottle, the higher the quality of the wine, so if you’re not sure of the grapes used, trust the tried and tested traditions of the country you’re buying from! Another little trick to look out for when selecting a good wine is to ignore certain terms such as ‘Reserve’–which actually doesn’t really mean anything, as there are no official rules anywhere which dictate who can or cannot label their wine a ‘Reserve wine’ and is often used to make an average wine appear better, and to keep an eye out for terms such as ‘Estate wine’. Estate wines have been sown, cultivated, grown, produced and bottled on one estate by a single winery, and are not from larger conglomerates who blend different wines of different vintages together to make more quaffable, easily drinkable and uncomplicated wines for a mass market. The winery is putting itself on the line by demonstrating that they are solely responsible for the product, and as such, Estate wines are generally of a higher quality, a more fascinating character, and generally more memorable, enjoyable or collectible.