Reading a Wine Label
In yachting as anywhere else, you will most certainly sometimes encounter wines with which you are not specifically familiar. And as we all know, labels can be incredible confusing at times so being able to properly read the provided information can be very useful and many times give you an indication of wine style and/or quality.
There are some different things to look out for to help you understand the label better, and we’ll discuss each in turn here.
Producer or Brand
All commercial wine labels will feature the producer or brand name. This may take the form of big, prominent lettering front and centre, or may be in fine print elsewhere. Brand names may be created by individual producers, or by distributors. Many consumers perceive grape varieties or regions of production much like brand names. “Chardonnay” or “Sauvignon Blanc” are clearly not brand names in the traditional sense, though consumers use these generic terms to make purchasing decisions all the time. The same is true for regional terms like “Bordeaux” and “Champagne”.
Most commercial wines will state a vintage on the label. This is the year that the grapes were harvested. Sometimes, the vintage year will correspond to the year of the wine’s release onto the market, though this is not necessarily the case in many regions and producers age their wine in their cellars for some months or years before release.
For the most part, it is wise to drink wine when young, immediately upon release. Most wines are intended to be enjoyed shortly after release and will lose their flavour and vibrancy over time. It is advisable to thus seek out recent vintages of these wines.
Vintage is particularly important for high-end wines from regions with changing growing conditions from one year to the next. A classic example here is fine Bordeaux, where vintage can have a massive impact on the quality - and price - of the wine from the same producer from one year to the next. 2009 and 2010 were excellent years in Bordeaux and produced excellent wines. 2007 was a difficult growing year, and thus the wines are generally of a lower quality, will be unable to age for quite so long, and will cost less. This is significant when making purchasing decisions: Pétrus 2010 costs almost twice as much as Pétrus 2007, for example, a difference of nearly €2,000 per bottle.
As the seasons are reversed in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, harvest correspondingly takes place at different times of the year in different parts of the world. Southern hemisphere countries harvest in February, March or April, whereas northern hemisphere countries harvest in August, September or October. Therefore, a 2015 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will be up to half a year older than a 2015 Sancerre. This is an important consideration when purchasing wines that are intended to be drunk when young and fresh.
The concept of geographical indication (GI) is key in wine legislation and also in wine history, as the geographical area in which any grapes are grown will shape the wine’s style, flavour profile and overall quality. GI designations are used in all wine regions and are a prominent feature of most wine labels. A GI is a specific vineyard area within a specified country. This may be a tiny, very specific plot of land, such as Romanée-Conti, or it may be a broader indication covering an entire region, such as Bourgogne. The use of these indications is very strictly controlled to ensure that the end consumer gets what they pay for. In the above example, the difference in style and quality between a generic Bourgogne wine and the top wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is vast, with around €15,000 in the difference too!
In the European Union (EU), wines with a GI are divided into two quality-driven subcategories, Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). In general terms, PDO is used for smaller geographic areas, with strict rules and regulations relating to winegrowing, grape varieties and other factors. On the other hand, PGI is used for larger areas that are subject to fewer, less strict regulations. PDO and PGI are the official, EU-level terms, though for the most part individual producers use historically established terms specific to their own country, such as Appellation d’Origine Protégée, used in France for PDO-level wines.
Geographical indications are controlled and impose rules and regulations upon producers that wish to use the designation for their wines. PDO regulations are stricter than PGI regulations, though in both cases producers will be subject to the rules set out by the GI’s governing body. These rules set out the winegrowing and winemaking techniques that producers can use, the grape varieties they can use, and more. All of these factors come together with the natural environment – things like soil type, elevation and exposure to the sun - to give the wines of a PDO a unique character and flavour that cannot be replicated outside of the area. PDO wines rarely mention the grape variety on the bottle, as it is the place that is very much in focus.
Some producers find PDO rules excessively restrictive, and opt instead to make PGI wines, as the category has looser regulations and offers the winemaker more choice and freedom. This is beneficial for producers who wish to use non-traditional grape varieties that would not be permitted in PDO wines. The PGI category allows producers in France and elsewhere to compete with large New World producers by offering inexpensive wines from internationally-known grape varieties in large quantities.
The most flexible option regarding production rules is to produce a “wine without a GI”, enabling the producer to source grapes from vineyard sites spanning an entire country, such as the generic Vin de France designation.
GI Terms in Individual Countries
France is probably the most important producing country in the yachting industry, so it’s important to understand its labelling terms. PDO wines are labelled as Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP), with older bottles bearing the terms Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or simply Appellation Contrôlée (AC). PGI wines were traditionally labelled as Vin de Pays (VdP), though the more modern term Indication Geographique Protégée is increasingly popular. Wines without a GI are labelled simply as Vin de France.
Italian wines are also big in yachting and will be useful to understand. Italian PDO wines are labelled with one of two terms. A select number of top regions have the status Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), and the rest are labelled as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). PGI wines use the term Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).
In Spain, PDO wines have a number of equivalent terms, with the two most significant being Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) and Denominación de Origen (DO). PGI wines are labelled with the term Vino de la Tierra (VdIT).
German PDO wines are labelled either Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein and must come from one of 13 designated wine regions. The term Prädikatswein is further divided into six subcategories, depending on the level of sugar in the harvested grapes. PGI wine is not especially common in Germany, though the term used is Landwein.
Most wines produced outside the EU will have a GI. At the national level, each country delineates its vineyard area in one way or another, be it across political boundaries, smaller regions, zones, counties or something else. These GIs are tightly controlled, though related terminology rarely features on the label. One exception is the American Viticultural Area (AVA) system used in the USA.
Geographical indications do not always equate to quality. It is quite possible to find AOP-level wine from France that is of a poor quality, and VdP or IGP wines that are of particularly good quality. Most EU countries have developed legally-defined labelling terms that indicate quality, as well as geographical origin.
In France, many appellations and regions are broken down into a quality classification or hierarchy. The exact system will vary from one region to another, and even within regions, there may be different classification systems. In Burgundy, the quality hierarchy is a sort of pyramid, in ascending order: Regional-level wines, Village-level wines, Premier Cru, and, at the top, Grand Cru. Bordeaux has some different classification systems covering its various sub-regions, with wines at the top tier in each case being commonly referred to as “First Growths”, or Premier Cru.
The important quality terms in Italy are Classico and Riserva. These terms carry different meanings across different regions.
In Spain, there are legally-defined quality indications based around how a wine is aged before release. From shortest to longest ageing time you will find Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.
In Germany, the PDO category Prädikatswein is further broken down into a hierarchy based on the sugar level in the grapes at harvest time. From low to high minimum levels of sugar, you will find Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese (BA), Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).
Though not as widely appreciated as EU producers, all wine producing countries have legislation to control production techniques and labelling terms. Furthermore, any wine imported to the EU must meet strict EU laws and regulations.
Style and Production Techniques
Many wine labels will also feature some words or phrases that describe the wine’s style, or how it was made. This is useful information as it can help you when making recommendations and advising clients. Sometimes, these phrases will be in English and quite easy to understand. Terms like “estate-bottled” or “hand-harvested” are straightforward and even self-explanatory. There are some terms that may not be so straightforward, and we will discuss some of the most common ones in this section.
“Barrel-fermented” (sometimes “barrique-fermented”) is a term used to describe white wines that have undergone alcoholic fermentation in oak barrels. This is a labour-intensive and costly process and imparts balanced oak flavours upon the wine. Barrel-fermented whites are relatively common in Bordeaux and Rioja.
“Barrel-aged” (sometimes “barrique-aged” or “élevé en fût de chêne”) indicates that the wine has been matured in oak barrels before bottling. Ageing times, type and age of oak will vary from region to region and producer to producer. New oak barrels impart the strongest oak flavours, whereas used barrels will lead to milder flavours. Many producers use a combination of new and old oak barrels.
“Oaked” is a more general term that indicates that the wine has had some contact with oak. This term is usually used for wines that have been matured in larger oak vessels than French barriques used above, or for those that have been in contact with oak staves, chips or other additions. These additions are not used for premium wines and are most common in inexpensive, mass-produced wines.
“Organic” wine is produced from grapes that have been grown without using any synthetic fertiliser, pesticide or herbicide products. There are different legal definitions and governing bodies depending on where in the world you are.
“Biodynamic” wine is a type of organic wine produced according to the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Producers of biodynamic wine treat their vineyard, or farm, as a self-contained, living organism, and carry out vineyard work in conjunction with lunar cycles, among other particularities.
“Unfined” and “unfiltered” indicate that the wine has not undergone the process of fining and filtering, respectively. These terms may appear together, or may not. These processes are used to remove haziness and sediment from the wine before bottling. Some producers feel that these processes can have a detrimental effect on the wine, by removing its character or essence, and thus will choose to forego either or both. Wine that is unfiltered or unfined is more likely to have deposit or sediment and may require careful decanting.
“Botrytis cinerea” (or just “botrytis” or “noble rot”) is the naturally occurring fungus that is responsible for the sweet wines of Sauternes and elsewhere. In the right circumstances, botrytis gives rise to decadent sweet wines, though it can also damage grapes beyond repair. Wines labelled with this term will be sweet.
“Cuvée” is a French term that is used throughout the world to indicate a wine that comes from a specific blend or otherwise special selection. There is no legal definition of the term and thus it is not indicative of the wine’s quality.
“Vieilles vignes” (or “old vines”) is another French term, indicating that the wine has come from particularly old vines. Older vines tend to give lower yields and produce more concentrated fruit, and theoretically better quality wine. As the term has no legal definition, however, it is not a reliable indicator of quality.
“Estate” (or “Château” or “Domaine”) indicates that the wine comes from grapes grown on the producer’s own vineyard land.
“Merchant” (or “négociant”) indicates that the wine has been made by a producer who blends together wines or grapes purchased from other producers and farmers. These terms may not be explicitly stated on the bottle, but most wine brands that are produced in big volumes are the work of merchants.
“Co-operative” indicates that the wine has come from a production facility owned and managed by a communal group of grape farmers.