Understanding Wine Labels

Every bottle of wine must have a label, and that label must provide certain information about the wine. Some of the information on a wine label is required by the country where the wine is made. Other items of information are required by the country where the wine is sold. When the requirements are different in the two places, life can get very, very complicated for label writers!

The forward and backward of wine labels

Many wine bottles have two labels. The front label names the wine and grabs your eye as you walk down the aisle, and the back label gives you a little more information, ranging from reallyhelpful suggestions like "this wine tastes delicious with food" to oh-so-useful data such as "this wine has a total acidity of 6.02 and a pH of 3.34."

The U.S. requires 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 — but they don't define front label. So sometimes producers put all that information on the smaller of two labels and call that one the front label. Then the producers place another larger, colorful, dramatically eye-catching label — with little more than the name of the wine on it — on the back of the bottle. Guess which way the back label ends up facing when the bottle is placed on the shelf?

The mandatory sentence

The federal government mandates that certain items of information appear on labels of wines sold in the U.S. (see Figure 1). 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 in the class; for example, the statement "table wine" implies an alcohol content of less than 14 percent)

  • Name and address 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

figure

Figure 1: The label of an American varietal wine.

Label definitions

Here's some other terms you may find on the label of your favorite bottle of wine.

  • Vintage year: The year in which the grapes for a particular wine were harvested.

  • Reserve: Indicates that a wine has received extra aging at the winery before release.

  • Estate-bottled: States that the company the bottled the wine also grew the grapes.

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