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Two Women on Wine: Decoding the language of U.S. wine labels

Terms such as ‘estate bottled’ can be confusing

Posted: May 21, 2009 4:11 p.m.
Updated: May 22, 2009 6:00 a.m.
Lil Lepore and Shari FrazierTwo Women on Wine Lil Lepore and Shari FrazierTwo Women on Wine
Lil Lepore and Shari FrazierTwo Women on Wine
We remember when selecting a wine sometimes came down to whether or not we liked the artwork on the label. Needless to say, we drank our share of wine that didn't have much more to offer than a pretty label.

We wish we knew then what we know now. The information on a wine label can help any wine drinker make an informed decision about which wine to select.

Besides the wine producer, the name of the wine is probably the most prominent, and important, information on the label. In the United States, most wines are named for the grape variety. One example is Cabernet Sauvignon. By law, to be labeled Cabernet Sauvignon the wine must be made up of at least 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Otherwise, even with a pretty label it's just red table wine.

In contrast, European wines are traditionally named for the region, such as Chianti in Italy or Bordeaux in France. We'll explore those wine labels in another article.

The names of wine-growing regions may also be found on many U.S. wines. Certain place names, or appellations, are officially registered and regulated according to a system called the American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Napa Valley is an AVA. The name Napa Valley can only appear on a label if at least 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine were grown in the Napa Valley.

The vintage year 2007 appearing on the label of a bottle of Riesling, for example, tells you that at least 95 percent of the grapes used to make that wine were harvested in 2007. The vintage year is a point of reference because some years are better for grape harvests than others. Also, some wines improve as they age in the bottle.

We like to see "estate-bottled" on a label. Only a wine producer who has grown the grapes (or closely supervised the growing), produced the wine and bottled it can label the wine "estate bottled." No fruit from other sources was used to produce the wine. If the label sports an AVA, such as Paso Robles, we know that every aspect of making that wine from growing the grapes to bottling the finished wine was done within that AVA.

A similar, more common description is "grown, produced and bottled." A wine grown, produced and bottled in the Santa Ynez Valley, for example, indicates that although some grapes came from that area not necessarily all of them did.

"Produced and bottled" means the winemaker bought the grapes from other sources, then produced and bottled the wine. "Bottled" or "cellared" are vague terms that mean the wine producer didn't have anything to do with growing the grapes or making the wine. Often a wine producer will buy finished wines to blend in order to produce, bottle, or cellar an inexpensive product.

Be wary of the term "reserve," which implies that the wine has some special characteristic. In truth, it just sounds good. There are no legal requirements defining "reserve," so its presence on a label doesn't guarantee anything. "Old vine" is another unregulated term. How old is old - 75 or 80 years or merely 25?

Straightforward information, such as alcohol content, needs no decoding. And then, of course, there's the artwork. After all, a pretty label doesn't hurt.


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