Blessings can be curses, in wine as in much else.
We in this country are blessed to be able to buy wine from a vast and varied selection, with far more choice than any other consumer on Earth. Even a corner bodega will carry wines from a half dozen countries and several regions of California. The same does not occur at a kiosk in Cannes.
But the pain among the plenty remains reading and decoding the labels on the bottles, especially those of non-American wine.
Because we live in a time of quick fixes, you will find many books and online guides on “how to read a wine label.” Every single one is long and baroque, neglecting to tell you that you (the reader, the buyer, the drinker) still need to do some work.
Every wine label, from anywhere, tells pretty much the same story, yet each has an unfinished ending that only you — and no article or pocket guide of any kind — can finish, about the quality that stands, works or floats behind most every letter on the label.
At the least, what does every label on a bottle of wine say? It says that somebody made the wine; somebody made it somewhere; and at some point in time. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and it does sound vague, but in wine, just that little is a long story.
By and large, wines take their names from one of two things: places or grapes (and sometimes a combination of the two). In what’s called the “Old World” — countries such as France, Italy or Germany — wine labels generally name the place where the wine was made. It can be a large place (“La Rioja”) or a very small place (“Le Montrachet”).
In the “New World” — countries such as ours, Chile or Australia — labels generally name grapes. Because we are comfortable with that naming convention, we become perplexed when reading a label from the Old World that merely names a place. We want to know “what are the grapes” that grow in that place and are in that wine?
More and more, winemakers from the Old World now tell you what grapes grow at their place (you may need to read the back, not the front, label for that). But if you really need to know the grapes within, you’ll have to do the work to find that out. Of course, that’s what the Internet and any other resource is good for.
That “somebody” made the wine is a truism, but the pedigree or quality of the somebody can be very important. Again, ascertaining that information is up to you, despite what the marketing lingo on the label says about that somebody’s excellence. “Somebody” can be a person; it could be a winery; it may be a collection of “somebodies” such as a co-op.
It’s very easy to find the name of the person who made the wine. It’s another thing to find out how good that somebody is at making the wine.
We are all over the place here, large and small. Even New World labels, with their emphasis on grape names, tell you where those grapes were grown or (at least) where they were made into wine and bottled.
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But ascertaining the quality of the place, how good or bad it is at growing good grapes, is largely up to you to determine.
Many labels, especially those from the Old World, help you because those places have quality controls built into them, as consumer guarantees. These are the long-standing “appellation control” systems of, say, France or Spain.
At some time
Just over 90 percent of all wine made each year is consumed before the next harvest. We don’t see that wine for sale because most consumers buy from the remaining 10 percent, wine with labels that have vintage dates on them.
Once again, a label isn’t going to tell you whether one year is or isn’t “a good year.” That’s up to you to find out.
But, of course, if you’re looking for a wine that’s still fresh and youthful, knowing the year in which it was made is a lot of help.
If no vintage date appears on a label, that usually means the wine is a mix of years. Good or bad? Up to you to find out.
The revenue-gathering arm of our government requires that certain information appear on a bottle of wine sold in this country, regardless of its place or origin. Often, this information helps you make an informed choice about the quality of the wine in the bottle.
In addition to the alcohol content by volume, much of that information regulates statements about where, when and by whom the wine was made.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years. He is based in Chicago.