How to Read a Wine Label Like a Regular Oenophile

Everything you should know about the tiny text on your bottle

Selecting an exceptional wine is never a simple task, and sometimes, trying to understand the label can be another job all in itself. To make your next trip to the bottle shop a bit less of a chore, we recruited Lucy Potter from one of our favorite bottle shops — Kingston Wine Co. — to decipher the meaning of each marker and help you find a perfect pour. Here’s what we learned:

There are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes grown across the globe — all used to create hundreds of different types of wine — making specific labeling an important part of the bottling process. Varying based on the country, some are quite simple, while others follow slightly wordier traditions. Regardless of the location, each bottle is required to be marked.

Most bottles bear multiple insignia, but according to Potter, “The front label is where you will get the most information, especially in Old World labels,” or those made in countries historically considered to have produced the stuff first. 

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Labels consist of five basic parts, mandated by the federal government: the producer or name, region, variety or appellation, vintage or non-vintage, and alcohol by volume. 

The producer (who makes the wine) helps provide insight into the history of its creation, while the region serves as an indication of the grape’s source. The more specific the location, the higher the quality and the more refined the pour. Variety or appellation, on the other hand, refers to which grapes were used in the wine’s creation.

The vintage, then, indicates the year the grapes were harvested. A wine described as non-vintage denotes that it’s made from a mix of multiple vintages, rather than a single year’s harvest, in order to better manipulate the flavor. The word reserve, found on many bottles, tells that the wine received extra aging time before release.

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