Special to MSN
You can’t judge a book by its cover, the old saying goes. But can you judge a wine by its label? Well, yes and no. You can certainly learn about the wine from its label. However, that doesn’t mean you can predict how good the wine will be.
The U.S. government has seven requirements for wine labels, though where on the label or if on the front or back label isn’t specified. Those seven are:
Brand name (Gallo, Fetzer, etc.).
- Type or class of wine such as table wine, dessert wine or sparkling wine. When a wine specifies a particular varietal, such as Chardonnay, at least 75 percent of the wine must be made from that grape.
Alcoholic content is shown as a percentage of alcohol by volume (i.e. 13.5 percent), often in miniscule lettering along the side or bottom of the label. If the wine is labeled "table wine," it must be less than 14 percent alcohol and the percentage need not be shown.
Net volume of contents expressed in milliliters.
Name and location of the bottler (which isn’t necessarily the same as the brand name).
Sulfites. Just about every wine uses sulfur dioxide as a preservative. Because some people are allergic to sulfites, labels must read: "Contains Sulfites."
Government health warning. There are cautions about drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy and about alcohol impairing the ability to drive cars or operate machinery. Within the latter warning is a catchall phrase that alcohol "may cause health problems."
These rules must be observed by wines imported into the United States, with one variation. Instead of the name and location of the bottler, the name and location of the importer must be listed. Conversely, U.S. wines sent abroad must follow the labeling laws of the country to which they are exported.
The fine print
Beyond the Big Seven, there are rules for optional statements on labels. If a vintage is listed, at least 95 percent of the grapes used in the wine must come from that vintage.
Labels also indicate where grapes came from. Federal regulations mandate that wines labeled with a state or county must have a minimum of 75 percent of the grapes from the specified state or county. (The state of California requires that California-designated wines have 100 percent California grapes.)
A more narrowly focused area or appellation is called an American Viticultural Region (AVA). This corresponds to the French Appellation Controlee (AC) or Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC), though "AVA" does not appear on the label as "AC" or "AOC" does on French labels. A wine with an AVA designation, such as Russian River, must contain 85 percent of its grapes from that AVA. If an individual vineyard is listed, such as Calcaire Vineyard, 95 percent of the grapes must come from that vineyard.
While appellations and their significance are still evolving in the United States, they are an important part of wine labels in Europe where the appellation also dictates the types of grapes used, grape-growing methods and winemaking methods. There is also a hierarchy of designations. For example, in France AC or AOC wines have more stringent requirements than wines labeled Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure (VDQS). (Italy, Spain and Portugal have designations similar to those of France.)
Speaking of superieure, if a French wine label has that word on it (superiore on Italian labels), it simply means that the wine is higher in alcohol. It has nothing to do with quality. Similarly, the word "reserve" has no legal significance in the United States. However, in Spain and Italy it means that the wine must be aged for a specified amount of time. Universally, the words "estate-bottled" (or their equivalent) are generally an indication of quality because it means that the company that made the wine and bottled it also grew the grapes.
German labels can be daunting because of the plethora of information and the often ornate script. But they are not difficult if you know what to look for. First, there is the region of origin such as the Rheingau. Then, the name of the town accompanied by the name of the vineyard. Thus, Hattenheimer Steinberg means the town of Hattenheim (with the suffix "er" added just as we might say someone from New York is a "New Yorker"), and Steinberg, the vineyard.
When the grape variety, such as Riesling, is listed, 85 percent of the wine must come from that grape. The variety is usually closely accompanied by the style of the wine such as Kabinett, Spatlese or Auslese, meaning the ripeness of the grapes. A Riesling Auslese, therefore, would be a wine made from late-harvested grapes. Thus, it will often be sweet. But it can sometimes be dry.
OK, you can’t learn everything from a label. The rest you have to find out by drinking the wine.
Sam Gugino writes a food column for Wine Spectator magazine. He is former food editor of the San Jose Mercury News and has also written for The New York Times, Cooking Light and other publications.