If you want to be educated about wine, a good first step is learning to read the label. A wine bottle label is a lot more than a pretty picture. It’s filled with information that can help you make an informed choice. Of course, just to make it difficult, different countries have different laws about what has to be on their wine labels. American wine labels, for instance, must indicate the geographic origin of the grapes that made up the wine in the bottle. It’s a good sign if the label indicates a specific vineyard as the source of the grapes, because generally speaking the best wine will be from very specific areas. If the label is vague about the origins (listing only New York or California as the location), your chances of getting an exceptional bottle of wine are lowered.
Labels on French wines are the vinous equivalent of a Russian novel. Not only does the label have to list the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (a term that means the wine meets the legal standards for the area where it was produced), it also has to list the VDQS, a second set of standards. As with American wines, the more specific the region indicated in the AOC, the better the wine is apt to be.
Despite the regional and national variations in wine labeling law, there are certain pieces of information that are common to all wine labels. One is a brand name. Another is the type of wine contained in the bottle. The most useful piece of information, however, is the vintage year, which is always on the front label. The vintage is the year a wine’s grapes were harvested. Depending on the terroir (the growing conditions) of that year, the vintage may or may not be a “vintage” year. (A “vintage” year is a particularly good year.)
The label will also specify if the wine is a “reserve” which will be the wineries most distinguished wine. Or if it is a Bordeaux it might say “Grand Cru” which is a designation reserved for only the best wines in the region.
Most wines that list a vintage year on their label are quality wines, but you should be aware that some wineries put a vintage on ordinary wines to make them look more important. With a list of vintage years in hand, it should be easy to consult labels until you find a wine that is suited to your taste.