Stepping into a wine shop, you will see labels trying to pull your attention in every direction. Each is designed to tell you exactly what you’re buying and to stand out from the crowd, encouraging you to buy it. But which parts are just marketing and where do you find the information you really need to know? That’s where the secret art of reading wine labels comes in.
Thanks to the needlessly complex (and borderline misleading in many cases) language used, understanding how to read a wine label is a great skill to have. Once you can separate the marketing fluff from the bits that tell you what the wine will taste like, you can buy more wine you’ll enjoy.
Interested? Read on as I break down everything you need to know about wine labels from all over the world. I’ll sort the important information from the PR nonsense and simplify the seemingly complex world of wine labels. Since not every country uses the same system, I’ve broken this down to the main wine regions so you can jump to the section that you already love.
Overview to Decoding Wine Labels
Wine labels are wildly different depending on which country the wine was produced in and the winery’s branding. But there are elements and important wine terms that are common across most wine labels that we can look out for:
1. Producer or Wine Name
Every bottle of wine will clearly state the name of the producer or the brand name. Sometimes this will be a name printed fairly small in the corner of the label, as with many French wine label examples. Other times it will be one of the only things visible, although this is rare outside of U.S. wine labels Usually this is when the wine is made by a huge company with various “styles” of wine being made and sold under one brand name.
This is where the grapes were grown.
It can be as vague as an entire country (wine of Argentina) or as specific as a single vineyard (Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos”). Generally, as the grape growing area gets smaller, the quality and price increase. The difference between having a wine from California or Sonoma is huge in terms of quality and price.
If the wine is from a specific vineyard then the vineyard name will often be in quotation marks (Chablis Grand Cru “Les Clos”) or located directly underneath the larger region on the label.
Often you will find a secondary location on a wine label. This will be where the wine was produced and bottled. But, in terms of flavor and style, the vineyard location (region) is the most important.
3. Vintage or Non-Vintage
The vintage is the year the grapes were harvested.
Vintage is very important as grapes are just a crop. And, like all crops, there are better and worse years depending on what the weather was like. Wines labeled as “non-vintage” (NV) or “multi-vintage” (MV) are generally less expensive as they are made from a blend of multiple years’ worth of wines which improves consistency.
4. Variety or Appellation
The variety just means the type of grapes that have been used to make the wine.
This could be a single variety like pinot noir, or a blend such as G.S.M. (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre). There won’t necessarily be any indication of the percentage of each grape used in the blend and, just to make life more confusing, some won’t say which grapes were used at all. If there are no grape varieties listed then there may be an appellation (protected name) that can tell you what is inside, or at least narrow it down.
Most regions in France won’t put varieties on labels but they do have very strict rules over which grapes can be used in each appellation. Several European wine countries use some form of appellation system, but the rules can vary and some are very loose. Sometimes it feels like the producer is being deliberately difficult when it comes to disclosing what varieties are in the wine, yes, I’m looking at you Italy.
5. Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
It is a legal requirement basically everywhere for alcoholic beverages to have the amount of alcohol in the product on the label, or the alcohol by volume. The alcohol level can tell us a lot about the style of the wine – not just how quickly you will feel its effects.
A wine with a low ABV, say 8%, is very likely to be sweet as the low alcohol suggests all the sugar wasn’t fully processed during fermentation.
At the other end of the scale, wines with 15-17% ABV are likely to be very full-bodied and fruity in style due to a high sugar content in the grapes when they were harvested.
As with all things, these are just general rules and there will always be exceptions.
The actual volume will be on there too and, for a standard wine bottle, this will be 750ml.
6. Quality Indications
Many wine bottles will say things like “Premier Cru”, “Grand Cru”, “Special Reserve”, “Grand Vin de France”, or some other phrase that is designed to indicate the wine’s quality. These can be entirely meaningless or an indication that the wine was grown in a special area, or produced by a particularly good wine producer.
Like all things in wine, there are always exceptions:
For non-European wines, this statement is probably meaningless. Even within Europe, it could still be totally meaningless. However, many European wine regions have very tight rules on labeling so it’s generally less likely to be meaningless waffle.
7. Contains Sulfites (Sulphites)
A lot of countries have a legal requirement to have “contains sulfites” or some variation of that phrase on the wine label. Sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process, so ALL WINES have sulfites.
All of them.
Even those ones talking about how little sulfites they have. Sulfites are also often added to wine to help prevent oxidization, keeping the color bright and the fruit notes of wine more prominent.
You may be aware of various movements within the wine industry (and the health industry) to demonize sulfites in wine. Blaming them for your hangovers, claiming they ruin the true flavor of wine, and so on and so forth. If you’re unaware of this, I envy you greatly.
If there is only one thing you take from this article, let it be this: There is no evidence that sulfites cause headaches after drinking wine.
There is a lot of evidence that drinking lots of alcohol causes headaches. There are also several weird and not-so-pleasant things added to very cheap wine. But sulfites aren’t the issue.
To put this into context, all of these foods contain more sulfites than wine: shrimp, dried fruit, ginger, and tomato puree. Some of these contain over 10 times the amount. So, if you have no issue with any of these, you’ll be fine.
How to Read French Wine Labels
Since each country has a different system, we’ll kick things off with France – that should keep them happy.
France has done an exceptional job of protecting its wine producers and marketing their products to the world. Don’t get me wrong, France really does produce some of the best wine in the world. But they also make knowing what’s in the bottle confusing as heck to the uninitiated.
This is very “on-brand” for the French, but once you know what to look for, it’s actually a really simple and nicely ordered system. By understanding a few simple rules for reading French wine labels, you will know how to pick a wine you’ll love. Let’s break it down:
Quality Specification: “Grand Vin De Bourgogne”
Bourgogne is the French name for Burgundy – one of the most esteemed French wine regions.
So any bottle of wine that says “Vin de Bourgogne” will be made from grapes grown within the designated boundaries of the Burgundy region.
In Burgundy, the addition of the word “Grand” designates a wine that is either from a specific village or is a Premier/ Grand Cru. These are all legally defined terms so can’t be put on the label unless the grapes are grown in specific vineyards. Ones that have been identified as being particularly good for growing grapes.
So “Grand Vin De Bourgogne” is, in theory, better wine than one that simply states “Vin de Bourgogne”. However, there are unfortunately no absolute rules in terms of wine quality – you’re just increasing the odds of it being good.
Next up is the vintage showing the year that the grapes were grown/harvested.
Whilst some years were better than others, it would take an encyclopedic memory to remember harvest quality in every wine region of the world. It would be more realistic to ask your old pal Google whilst looking at the bottle.
Appellation: “Chablis Premier Cru”
This is the really important bit, which is why it is in big letters.
For much of France, the area that the grapes were grown in will dictate which grapes were used and what style the wine is. So, this is essentially telling you what is in the bottle.
There are two parts to this particular wine: “Chablis” refers to a town in northern Burgundy. And for a wine to say “Chablis” on the label, it has to be made from Chardonnay grapes.
Nice and easy: Chablis = Chardonnay.
This sort of system is true for much of France. Whilst it is initially confusing, compared to some other European wines *cough* Italy *cough*, it’s actually pretty straightforward.
“Premier Cru” is a special designation within Burgundy for vineyards that are deemed of higher quality. So “Chablis Premier Cru” translates to chardonnay grapes from a good vineyard in Chablis, Burgundy. Simples.
In Burgundy, it is common practice for wines designated “Premier Cru” (or the more prestigious “Grand Cru”) to name the specific vineyard they are from.
There are a whopping 80 Premier Cru vineyards and whilst it would be a cool party trick, no I don’t know them all by heart. Even the geekier wine nerds would struggle to tell the difference so you can generally ignore this piece of information.
Quality Designation: “Appellation Chablis Premier Cru Contrôlée”
Now for the legal bit.
In 1937, France started putting rules into place around its most famous wine regions. To have “Appellation Contrôlée” or “AOC” on the label the wine must meet strict criteria regarding:
- Where the grapes were grown
- What type of grapes were used
- The method used to make the wine
If you’re looking at a French wine bottle and wondering what to expect, Google whichever Appellation Contrôlée it comes from and you’ll find out, assuming it is AOC designated. For example, search for “what grapes are in chablis AOC”.
Alternatively, the label might say “Vin de pays” – a lesser designation that is usually accompanied by the grape variety. The lowest level of wine in France is “Vin de table”, literally “table wine”. I would only recommend drinking this in France, and then only as a glass with a sandwich or lunch or something.
Wine Producer: “Vincent Dauvissat Propriétaire Chablis (Yonne)”
In this case, “Vincent Dauvissat” is the winemaker.
It is more common in Burgundy than anywhere else for the wine maker’s name to be on the bottle. Elsewhere, it is more likely to see the name of the Château or winery in general. So this could very easily say something like “Château Haut-Brion” or “Cave de Turckheim”.
The winemaker is important everywhere. As, like all professions, there are those who are better and those who are worse. There is also a wide range of styles within a geographic area depending on the winemaker.
When starting out on your wine journey, it’s not that important to know who is and isn’t regarded as good – the price will tell you that. But it is a good idea to make a note of the maker of any wines that you like so you can keep coming back for more.
Chablis (Yonne) simply means the wine is from Chablis, which is within the Yonne department of France. A department in France is similar to a county.
Additional Information: “Mis en Bouteille à la Propriété”
This statement can appear on either the label or the cork. It tells you that the wine was made and bottled (mis(e) en bouteille) at the producer’s property (à la propriété).
Alternatively, it might say “mis(e) en bouteille au Château” meaning it was also made and bottled by the producer but at a more prestigious Château.
This isn’t really important, particularly with European wines. However, in some non-European wine regions wines are shipped in massive tanks and then bottled at the destination.
ABV: “13% Vol”
Simply, the alcohol by volume is 13%.
The strength of the wine can tell you something about the style: Many higher alcohol wines have big flavors, fruit, and big tannins in the case of French red wines. Whereas lower alcohol, under 10% ABV, may indicate a sweet wine.
How to Read an Italian Wine Label
Italian wine label information is more confusing than its neighbors as it often hides the grape varieties behind appellation names. However, the rules aren’t that strict so you can have a wider range of styles within a geographic location. Therefore, knowing the producer plays a bigger role in knowing what you will get from your purchase.
Quality Specification: “Barbaresco Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita”
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG for short) is similar to the French AOC system although it is often more flexible. It tells you what’s in the bottle.
Only the Nebbiolo grape variety can be used in “Barbaresco DOCG” wine so that’s nice and easy.
You will see a lot of Italian wines with either “DOCG” or “DOC” on the label. Like the AOC system used in French wine labeling, you can always google the name associated with the DOC(G) to get more info about where it’s from and how it’s made.
In theory, DOCG wines are of a higher quality than DOC wines. This isn’t a hard and fast rule by any stretch of the imagination but is something to consider.
If the label says “IGT” or “Indicazione geografica tipica” this is a lower designation, but it often means some international grape varieties have been used alongside the traditional Italian ones. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay are the most common grapes used. Some of the best wines in Italy are designated as IGT due to the use of these grapes.
Region: “Rio Sordo”
This is the name of a small, specific area within the Barbaresco DOCG and is where the vineyard is located.
Such details aren’t too common on Italian wine bottles, except on the more expensive ones. But again, it gives you even more information on what the wine will taste like as there will be a particular style of Barbaresco associated with grapes grown in Rio Sordo.
The vintage indicating the year the grapes were grown/harvested.
Winemaker: “F.LLI Brovia”
Short for “Fratelli Brovia”, the name of winemaker. Realistically, knowing or remembering winemakers’ names is only important if you like the wine.
There are massive variations in style among winemakers in some Italian wine regions. For example, if you see a Barbaresco on a wine list or in a shop and you already know you like Fratelli Brovia’s Barbaresco, you can see if they are similar or wildly different. You can do this by asking Google, your friendly Sommelier, or a wine shop employee.
Additional Info: “Red Wine – Product of Italy – Imbottigliato da / Bottled by Azienda Agricola Brovia”
It’s usually pretty easy to spot most red wines – the color is a dead giveaway – but it’s nice to have such things confirmed.
The latter half of this statement confirms that the wine was grown and bottled at the property. This just gives you peace of mind that it wasn’t shipped en masse to a giant bottling operation.
Winery Location: “Castiglione Falletto – Italia”
This is where the winery is located. Castiglione Faletto is a commune that is part of the Cuneo Province in Piedmonte. It is pretty common for the vineyard and producer location to be separate (although not usually very far from each other).
ABV: “Vol 750ml, Alc 14% by Vol”
How big the bottle is and what percentage of the liquid is alcohol.
How to Read a Spanish Wine Label
Spanish wine labels have many of the same elements as French and Italian wines. Whilst there aren’t tiered quality levels within regional wine like in France, the rules around what goes into the wine are much stricter than in Italy.
It’s also common for the variety to be on the label in much of Spain, which is a nice change.
Wine Producer: “Cune”
This is the name of the producer. Generally speaking, on Spanish wine labels, the producer’s name will be the most prominent part.
Rioja is the name of the region where the grapes are grown.
In this case, Rioja is one of the most famous wine regions in Spain. It is most famous for its red wines, though there is also a lot of white wine and rosé produced here too. Tempranillo is the dominant red variety in most red Rioja, but there are other varieties which will be included in the blend.
Similar to France and Italy, the wine regions of Spain have their own grape varieties and styles.
Quality Specification: “Denominación de Origen Calificada”
Following in the footsteps of the French AOC and Italian DOCG system is Spain’s version – Denominación de Origen Calificada or DOCa for short.
You will mostly encounter wines that are “DO” (Denominación de Origen) as there are only two which carry the more prestigious “DOCa” label – Rioja and Priorat. “Calificada” (the “Ca” part) means guaranteed or qualified, implying superior quality wines over their D.O. counterparts.
Just to make life more confusing, some Priorat will say DOQ which is the Catalonian version of DOCa but means the same thing.
These are not the only classifications you will find on Spanish wine labels. Some designations will say “VT” (Vino de la Tierra) which falls at the bottom of the quality list, followed by VC, VP, DO, and DOCa at the top. But, as ever, this is only a rough guide as Spain has more designations than most.
This is the vintage in which the grapes for this wine were grown/ harvested.
As this is a Rioja, only 85% of the grapes used need to be harvested in the stated year. Rioja is almost always a blend and they use previous vintages to adjust the wine to ensure consistently higher quality wines. But this rule is unique to the Rioja region.
Oak Contact Designation: “Crianza”
This is a Spanish designation of age:
A wine labeled “crianza” in Spain must be aged 2 years at the winery, with a minimum of 1 year in oak barrels. This is for red wines only; for white or rosé wines, it is a minimum of 6 months in barrel.
Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a statement of quality. But the “crianza”, “reserva”, and “gran reserva” labels tell you how much time the wine has spent in the barrel, giving a good indication as to the style.
Additional Information: “Producido Y Embotellado Por”
This literally translates as “produced and bottled by”.
Business Name: “Compania Vinicola de Nerte de España”
The business name of the company (Cune) that produced and bottled the wine.
Winery Location: “Haro España”
Where it was made and bottled – Haro is a small town within the Rioja region.
How much wine is in the bottle.
The standard bottle of wine is 750ml but this can also be written as 75cl or 0.75l. There is no real rule or reason as to why some volumes are in centiliters or liters and others in milliliters, just personal preference I guess.
How to Read German Wine Labels
Sommeliers often joke that no one truly understands German wine labels. They are the most precise of any in the world but require a lot of knowledge to fully understand which makes them some of the most confusing wine labels for newbies.
Just knowing a few German wine quick tips can actually make the labels seem simple in comparison to many other countries.
Producer: “Dr Loosen”
This is the name of the producer. Many wine labels, including German ones, may not display this information at the top of the label. But it will be prominently displayed on the front of the bottle somewhere.
Wine Name: “Purple Slate”
This is the name given to the wine by the producer. Not all wines are given a name and, when they are, it can anything that the winemaker chooses. So, it could be related to the region, the style, or just something that was seemingly plucked out of thin air.
In other words, it’s marketing speak and not something you need to pay attention to other than to help you remember a favorite wine for next time.
The vintage in which the grapes were grown/harvested.
Grape Variety: “Riesling”
Finally, a European wine label with the grape variety written on it!
There are obviously wines from France, Italy, and Spain which display this information but it’s nice to know that all German wine bottles will show the grape variety. Unless they’re low-quality blends which are best avoided anyway.
German Harvest: “Kabinett”
Kabinett refers to the ripeness of the grapes when harvested. Seeing Kabinett on a bottle of German wine does not mean it is dry. It makes it more likely, but there are lots of off-dry or even sweet Kabinett wines.
In Germany, there are 6 terms that indicate ripeness:
- Kabinett – the lowest level of ripeness, most likely to be dry.
- Spätlese – literally means “late harvest” but the exact date varies by region and vintage. These wines will be more intense, with more developed flavors, and more sugar.
- Auslese – means “selection”. These wines are made from bunches of grapes that were specially selected for advanced ripeness. They will have a greater intensity than Spätlese wines and will almost always be at least off-dry.
- Beerenauslese – wines made from grapes that were individually selected, rather than by bunch, to ensure maximum ripeness. These grapes are often affected by botrytis (noble rot) which adds interesting flavors to the wine. These are always dessert wines.
- Eiswein – in this case, the grapes have been harvested and pressed while frozen. Doing so maximizes sugars and minimizes water content, always producing very sweet wines.
- Trockenbeerenauslese – “trocken” means dry but that doesn’t refer to the wine style. Instead, this means the grapes have been selected after drying on the vine. These are always rich, indulgent sweet wines.
Quality Specification: “Praditkätswein”
This is a designation that indicates a superior quality wine. Previously, this was called “Qualitätswein mit Pradikät” or QmP (quality wine with special attributes).
These wines can range from very sweet to dry, though even those labeled as “trocken” (dry) contain quite a bit of residual sugar.
The German wine labeling system is very strict, so seeing Praditkätswein or Qualitätswein is a really good indicator of a good quality German wine.
Winery Location: “Erzeugerabfüllung Weingut Dr. Loosen D-54470 Bernkastel/Mosel”
At first glance, this looks complicated, but it’s just saying that the wine was bottled by Weingut Dr. Loosen in Bernkastel, Mosel.
ABV: Alc 10.5% Vol
Combined with the “Kabinett” ripeness designation, this tells us that this is a dry wine. However, if this were a Spatlase or Auslese ripeness, this would mean an off-dry style. The ripeness and ABV can be used together to determine how sweet the wine is.
Finally, we get to the region where the grapes were grown. Other producers put the region much more prominently on the label. But Dr. Loosen is a very big and famous producer of Mosel wine, so they probably feel the winery name is more important than where it’s from.
How to Read a Non-European Wine Label
Outside of Europe things get a bit complex. With new world wines, grape varieties are nearly always listed. But controls on other terms found on the label are often non-existent. This means that a lot of what is on the label is meaningless marketing fluff. So, while you may rejoice at being able to see exactly what grapes are in your wine, you lose a lot of quality protections.
The example shown here is from Argentina but the rules (or lack thereof) apply to most new world wine labels.
Wine Producer: “Trivento”
The name of the winery will always be prominent on the label. So, it’s good to keep a note of ones you like in case you come across other wines by them.
Name of Wine: “Golden Reserve”
Terms like “reserve”, “reserva”, and “grand reserve” are very common on international wine labels. But unlike in Europe, there are no legal definitions for these things so they are fairly meaningless. They are mostly used to indicate extra aging at the winery or extra contact with oak.
The vintage shown on wines from the Southern Hemisphere is the same as the Northern Hemisphere’s spring. So you may see wines from Southern Hemisphere countries appearing in shops before the end of the year when many of the Northern hemisphere wines are still fermenting. Time is confusing.
Grape Variety: “Malbec”
The grape variety is also commonly displayed prominently on the label – Malbec in this example.
In the case of blends, you’ll often find the list of grapes used on the back, if not also on the front. If they don’t have percentage values as to how much each grape variety was used, they’ll be listed in order of highest percentage to lowest.
Region: “Lujan de Cuyo”
The shows the region this wine is from.
As a general rule, the smaller the named region the better. For example, if this wine just said “Argentina” then the grapes could be from anywhere in Argentina. “Mendoza” means they’re all from the Mendoza region (famous for the full-bodied red wine, Malbec). Whereas “Lujan de Cuyo” is a small region within Mendoza, so it shows the grapes are from a high-quality area within the larger wine region.
This is just a brief overview of how the information on a label can be used (or ignored) to tell you about what you’re going to get in the bottle. It’s important to remember that wine labels are marketing. And, like all marketing, there are things that should be listened to and things that are just there to make you buy the thing.
Knowing how to read a wine label won’t guarantee great wine every time, but it will significantly increase your chances of buying wines you’re going to enjoy.