How To Read A Wine Label

Are wine labels straightforward in what they tell us about a wine? Yes, if you know the rules that wineries have to follow and understand the nuances of labeling laws.

Let’s take a look at one of the more attractive wine labels from Pismo Beach Winery and figure out what it tells us. Pismo Beach Winery has a flair for wine making and great label art. depicting local scenes along California’s central coast. It certainly draws us to the wine but what about the rest of the label?

In the United States all our wines, including imported wines, have to comply with our strict label requirements. Below are the basics of what a wine label tells us. You may be surprised to find that a wine labeled Chardonnay may in fact be made up of 25% of other grape varieties.

1. Producer or brand name. Pismo Beach Winery is the brand and the producer. Some wine producers may have more than one brand. (Gallo has over 100 brands!)

2. Wine Name. The type of wine in the bottle. It may be a varietal (single grape type) or a blend such as a meritage, a Rhone Blend or a generic “Red Wine”. California requires that at least 75% of the wine in the bottle be that varietal. This allows wine juice to be added to improve the character of the wine and still be called by that varietal. The “Reserve” name has no legal standing but usually is the winery’s superior offering.

3. Vintage, or the year the grapes were grown. California requires that 85% of the juice in the bottle has to come from the stated vintage year. For wines noted to be from a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA), for example Edna Valley, Paso Robles, Napa Valley or a sub-appellation, the rule is 95% of the grapes must be from the stated vintage. If there is no vintage year present it is a blend of various years.

4. Appellation, place of origin or geographical growing area. If this label were to say just “California” as the growing area 100% of the grapes would have been required to come from the state of California but they could have been sourced from anywhere in the state. Narrowing down the place of origin to a county level, such as “Sonoma” or “San Luis Obispo” 75% of the grapes would have to have been grown within that county. If the wine is noted as within an American Viticultural Area or AVA including Edna Valley, then 85% of the grapes for that wine must have come from that AVA.

5. Alcohol by volume. This statement on a table wine indicates the alcohol content by volume, with a tolerance of plus or minus 1.5%. If the wine is 14% or more the tolerance is only 1%.

Additional label Information

Producer and Bottler provides a lot of information on who and where the wine was made.
-"Produced and bottled by", certifies that the bottler fermented 75% or more of the wine.
-"Cellared and bottled by", indicates that the bottler has aged the wine for some period of time before bottling, but did not make the wine.
-"Made and bottled by", indicates that the bottler fermented at least 75% of the wine.
-"Bottled by" indicates that the winery bottled the wine, which may have been grown, crushed, fermented, finished, and aged elsewhere.

Vineyard of Origin. Many wineries name the vineyard in which the grapes were grown because the winery believes the property produces an unusually high-quality grape. 95% of theses grapes must have been grown in the vineyard named.

Estate Bottled. This term certifies that the winery grew 100% of the grapes on land it owns or controls and that the winery crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine in a continuous process. Both the vineyard and winery must be located in the viticultural area that is stated on the label.

Sulfites. Beginning in 1988, wines which have a level of 10 parts per million or greater of sulfur dioxide must be labeled with a sulfite declaration. Sulfites naturally occur in wine but are also used as an additive to keep the wine fresh.

Understanding a wine label can help you understand what is inside the bottle. However, the best way to know what is in the bottle is to gather some friends and pull a cork, pour some wine and enjoy.

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