How to Decipher Labels on European Wines

6 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Shopping for Wine

Wines produced or sold in the European Union (EU) must include some of the same information found on American wine labels. But the EU regulations require additional label items for wines produced in its member countries.

The most important of these additional items is an indication of a wine’s so-called quality level — which really means the wine’s status in the European Union’s hierarchy of place-names. In short, every wine made in an EU member country must carry one of the following items on the label:

  • A registered place-name, along with an official phrase that confirms that the name is in fact a registered place-name

  • A phrase indicating that the wine is a table wine, a status lower than that of a wine with a registered place-name

For U.S. wines, the table wine category encompasses all non-sparkling wines that contain up to 14 percent alcohol. This is a distinctly different use of the term table wine.

Appellations of origin

A registered place-name is called an appellation of origin. In actuality, each EU place-name defines far more than just the name of the place that the grapes come from: The place-name connotes the wine’s grape varieties, grape-growing methods, and winemaking methods. Each appellation is, therefore, a definition of the wine as well as the wine’s name.

European wines with official place-names fall into a European category called QWPSR (Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region). The following phrases on European labels confirm that a wine is a QWPSR wine and that its name is therefore a registered place-name:

  • France: Appellation Contrôlée or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC or AOC, in short), translated as regulated name or regulated place-name. Also, on labels of wines from places of slightly lower status, the initials AO VDQS, standing for Appellation d’Origine — Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure; translated as place-name, demarcated wine of superior quality.

  • Italy: Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), translated as regulated place-name; or for certain wines of an even higher status, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), translated as regulated and guaranteed place-name.

  • Spain: Denominación de Origen (DO), translated as place-name; and Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOC), translated as qualified-origin place-name for regions with the highest status (of which there are only two, Rioja and Priorat).

  • Portugal: Denominação de Origem (DO), translated as place-name.

  • Germany: Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), translated as quality wine from a specific region; or Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP), translated as quality wine with special attributes, for the best wines.

The following figure shows a European wine label as it would appear in the United States.

The label of a European wine (with a registered place-name) to be sold in the U.S. [Credit: ©
Credit: © Akira Chiwaki
The label of a European wine (with a registered place-name) to be sold in the U.S.

The phrase for a registered place-name in the United States is American Viticultural Area (AVA). But the phrase does not appear on wine labels.

European table wine designations

For European table wines — wines without an official appellation of origin — each European country has two phrases. One term applies to table wines with a geographic indication (actually Italy has two phrases in this category), and another denotes table wines with no geographic indication smaller than the country of production. These phrases are:

  • France: Vin de pays (country wine) followed by the name of an approved area; vin de table

  • Italy: Indicazione Geografica Tipica (translated as typical geographic indication and abbreviated as IGT) and the name of an approved area, or vino da tavola (table wine) followed by a the name of a geographic area; vino da tavola

  • Spain: Vino de la tierra (country wine) followed by the name of an approved area; vino de mesa

  • Portugal: Vinho Regional (regional wine) and the name of an approved area; vinho de mesa

  • Germany: Landwein (country wine) and the name of an approved area; Deutscher tafelwein

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