Understanding wine labels is essential to recognizing the quality of a wine. If only there were a key to decoding them all.
photography by Andrea Renault
To most consumers, what’s written on a wine’s label represents all they are ever likely to read about their purchase. In a world where tens of thousands of wines compete for attention, labels play a crucial role in creating an identity for the wine itself. And since few wines are significant enough to stand alone, each wine must establish its identity among others like it.
Wine labels in their present paper form are relatively new, first appearing in the middle of the last century. Would you believe that in wine-savvy England, labels weren’t mandatory on bottles until the mid-1960s? Still, many wine regions have labels that have changed little over the last hundred years, but even in the most traditional areas of the world, signs of homogenization are appearing as a result of global marketing. Today’s consumers not only want to be able to understand the language on the label, they want to read it fast.
The Name Game
Requirements about what information should appear exist throughout the international wine community. While true in the European Community and the United States, these regulations are not universally accepted, which often leads to confusion.
Take the term “port” for instance: protected within the E.C. as the produce of the Portuguese Douro Valley, in the U.S. and South Africa the term is used to describe a port-like dessert wine, regardless of its origin.
A more infamous example of confusing terminology is “Burgundy,” a protected term in the E.C. as wine produced in France’s Bourgogne region. After repeal of Prohibition in the U.S., the Gallo family of California adopted the term “Hearty Burgundy” for one of their red jug wines to lend prestige to the brand. As a result, many Americans today think burgundy refers to a color of wine, while the French bureaucrats still see red when they talk about it.
Other famous names have been similarly copied, and the growers and merchants in such places as Champagne, Chablis and Sauternes have had to fight zealously to protect their names. Naturally, such protectionism extends beyond the label. Wine trivia buffs will recall that French super-conglomerate L.V.M.H. lost a major battle a few years ago to introduce a perfume called “Champagne.” Quelle horreur! Champagne producers basically told L.V.M.H. that if anyone wanted to smell like champagne, they need only splash themselves with the real thing. Period.
Old World vs. New
Producers sometimes overcome restrictions on what can, may or must appear on a country’s wine labels by employing an additional back label, which contains all mandatory information, leaving the front label for an eye-catching advertisement of the brand.
| South Africa
South African wines are grouped by the country’s Wines of Origin rules, but the regions of origin are mostly unknown to casual wine drinkers. So far, the quality cabernets and pinotages emerging from the country have proven better at developing strong South African wine awareness.
This information is helpful to consumers, but only if one understands the rules and terminology. In the European Community, for example, wines are controlled by an appellation system, which denotes their origin and, more importantly, their quality and style. While wine labels from France, Italy and Germany have little in common aesthetically, they all share common E.C. imprimaturs. These controls, however, do not apply in the U.S. Although regulations in this country have tightened in recent years, one can still buy an American “Burgundy,” “Chablis,” or “Champagne.” Perhaps a closer look at how language effects European Community labels–which also extend to Australia–can help us better understand American labels.
The great diversity of wines produced in France necessitate strict regulations delineating specific production requirements and corresponding inspections systems. The French system is so thorough it serves as the model for the entire European Community. Under European Common Market regulations, wines are grouped in two classes: Vins de Table and VQPRD (Vins de Qualité Produits dans un Région Déterminée), or quality wines produced in specific regions. In France, each of these categories is subdivided into two further categories, creating four classes of French wines:
Vins de Table: These wines must have an alcohol content not less than 8.5% or 9% by volume, according to the area of production and not more than 15%. If they are of French origin, whether a blend or from a single region, they are entitled to be called Vin de Table française. Vins de Table can be a blend of wines from any other E.C. country, but not from outside of the E.C.
Vins de Pays: The élite of Vins de Table wines with the right to show their origin on the label.
AO VDQS (Appellation d’Origine -Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure), often referred to as VDQS: The production of these wines is strictly monitored by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, and come from less well-known regions than those with AOC classification.
Because of the range and depth of the French wine industry, French wine labels arguably offer the most reliable, the most comprehensible–and the most confusing–information.
AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée): Wines with an AOC classification–the highest category of French wines–are produced within what is often a traditional area. Official regulations governing soil, climate, grape varieties, minimum alcohol content and various other aspects guarantee their origin, authenticity and style.