They catch your eye from across the crowded store. Intrigued, you move closer to see what they’re all about. But somehow, the nearer you get to the wine section, the more confusing the process of selecting a bottle becomes.
Friends have told me that if they want a “good” wine, they will buy the most expensive bottle they can afford. But a fantastic wine doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Knowing how to use the label to make your choice will give you the power to purchase using more than just price as your guide.
With the spring entertaining season off and running, wine-label wisdom will help you select a bottle you’d be proud to introduce to your mom’s Easter ham, serve for Passover brunch or even bring to a discerning boss’ spring barbecue.
Just the facts
Within the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives regulates the information American winemakers must include on their labels. These regulations make it simple for consumers to learn a lot about a wine made in the U.S.
Every country that produces wine has different requirements for labeling, which means that confusion can arise. For now, I’ll focus on how to read U.S. wine labels.
Front and center on the bottle is the name of the winery that produced the wine. The name is followed by vintage year, which notes the year the grapes were picked.
The type of wine will be clearly printed on U.S. wine labels. If it is a wine made from a single type of grape, the varietal will appear (such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon). In California, if a wine is labeled as a particular varietal, it must be made using at least 75 percent of that grape.
If the wine is a blend of different grapes, a style of wine will be listed instead of a grape – for example, Meritage, Claret or California Red Table Wine.
Next comes place of origin, or “appellation” in wine-speak. The American Viticulture Area outlines the various wine regions within the U.S. A wine labeled as being from Russian River Valley, for instance, means that 85 percent of the grapes used are from the Sonoma County appellation.
These are the basics of reading a label, but there are other, more subtle things to pay attention to on a label.
Avoid mascots and attention-grabbers
Much like a chicken nugget in the shape of a dinosaur is not an indication of quality, I recommend avoiding wine labels that rely on gimmicks to attract attention. A fuzzy bunny on a label doesn’t mean a good wine resides inside.
A wine should not be valued for the fact that its label would add a bit of whimsy if framed and hung on your bathroom wall. (Note: A consummate rule-breaker, Bonny Doon is an exception to this rule. The winery’s playful labels are fun, but what is in the bottle is usually even more wonderful.)
This no-gimmick guidance applies to winery names as well. While all rules have exceptions, I think in general it is best to avoid wines with names that are intended to shock buyers or appeal to particular hobbyists. As far as I know, there isn’t a “Knitters Loom Merlot” on the market yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some opportunists brought out a wine aimed at the knitting wine-lovers of the world.
Turn the bottle around
There are all kinds of important details on the back of the bottle, so be sure to check out the backside.
One attribute I often look for when browsing new wines is a personal touch – something that indicates that the wine is made with pride. For example, a winery that puts its phone number or address on the back of the bottle is one that wants to have a relationship with you. They want you to be able to get in touch with them, and I like that.
Many wineries provide a description of the wine. Some of the terminology used might be off-putting, but once you start reading the backs of labels, you’ll see that there is a lot of consistency. Terms such as “pronounced” and “deep” indicate a wine with intense tastes or flavors.
Fruits and other organic descriptions are often used in tasting notes. They don’t mean that a wine will taste identical to the descriptor used. Instead, they provide a recognizable comparison for consumers to better understand how a wine will taste.
Worth a try
A bottle of 2012 Hagafen Oak Knoll Chardonnay, available via Redwood City’s K&L Wine Merchants’ online store, is a great kosher choice for a Passover party. The wine’s tasting notes indicate that it has “yellow apple” attributes, meaning it will be soft and ripe tasting.
Available at several local markets, 2012 Dry Creek Vineyard’s Chenin Blanc should be all the rage served beside an Easter ham. Crisp on the palate and flowery on the nose, it is bound to please.
Christine Moore is learning more about wine every day. To read her blog, visit sheepishsommelier.blogspot.com.