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Understanding American Wine Labels

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

Many American wine bottles have two labels. The front label names the wine and grabs your eye as you walk past it. The back label gives you a little more information, ranging from food pairings to other stuff like “this wine has a total acidity of 6.02 and a pH of 3.34.”

The government authorities in the United States (and other governments) require certain information to appear on the front label of all wine bottles — basic stuff, such as the alcohol content, the type of wine (usually red table wine or white table wine), and the country of origin.

The mandatory sentence

The federal government mandates that certain items of information appear on labels of wines sold in the United States. Such items are generally referred to as the mandatory. These include:

  • A brand name

  • Indication of class or type (table wine, dessert wine, or sparkling wine)

  • The percentage of alcohol by volume (unless it is implicit — for example, the statement “table wine” implies an alcohol content of less than 14 percent)

  • Name and location of the bottler

  • Net contents (expressed in milliliters; the standard wine bottle is 750 ml, which is 25.6 ounces)

  • The phrase Contains Sulfites (with very, very few exceptions)

  • The government warning (pick up any bottle of wine and you’ll see it on the back label)

The following figure shows you how all the details come together on a label.

The label of an American varietal wine. [Credit: © Akira Chiwaki]
Credit: © Akira Chiwaki
The label of an American varietal wine.

Wines made outside the United States but sold within it must also carry the phrase imported by on their labels, along with the name and business location of the importer.

Who's the real wine producer?

Although U.S. labeling laws require wine labels to carry the name and address of the bottler, this information doesn’t necessarily tell you who made the wine.

Of the various phrases that may be used to identify the bottler on labels of wine sold in the United States, only the words produced by or made by indicate the name of the company that actually fermented 75 percent or more of the wine (that is, who really made the wine); words such as cellared by or vinted by mean only that the company subjected the wine to cellar treatment (holding it for a while, for example).

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