Wine 101 TM_W1_LABELS_FI_001

Reading the Label

Learning to judge a wine before you open the bottle


I recently received a sample of a rather eye-catching bottle of wine. Included in the shipment was a news release. It invited me to celebrate the wine’s “bold new label,” which was “sure to grab attention at the next summer barbeque.” It also informed me that the wine was both “fun and unconventional” and that it “reflects the Wild West experimentation of the Paso Robles AVA.”

The front label featured the wine’s name and nothing else — Troublemaker, in all capital letters, printed in a big, bold white font on a red and black splattered background. Flipping the bottle over didn’t further clue me in to what could possibly be inside. The back label read:

Troublemaker: You know who you are.

Intensely rich
Velvety smooth
Sneaky good

No mention of which grape varieties were used to make the wine on the label. No description of how it was produced or aged. No advice on what kinds of food to pair with a glass of it. There wasn’t even a vintage year anywhere in sight. The only remotely useful information was the wine’s alcohol percentage, hidden in small print at the bottom of the back label: 14.5% ABV, and it was only included because it’s required by law.

To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what the hype over this new label was all about. Sure, it was modern looking, trendy, and flashy, but beyond its initial visual appeal, it offered no informative value to me. Labels exist to tell you what’s inside the bottle. They should be helpful. Nowhere on this bottle could I find information that hinted at what the wine would ultimately taste like. All I could establish was that it was red, from California, and based on its name alone, may or may not have been intended to stir up a bit of trouble in my life once I opened it.

Before I uncorked the bottle, I wanted to know more about the wine beyond how rich, smooth, and sneaky it was. But if the accompanying press release hadn’t spelled it out for me, I would have never figured out the wine was a hodge podge of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, zinfandel, and petite sirah. And I wouldn’t have realized that these grapes had been grown during two different vintage years before all being combined into one wine. A Wild West experiment? The multi-vintage blend sounded more like a science project gone wrong to me.

After a disappointing and troubling taste of the wine, it was clear to me why the winery chose not to disclose any of its details on the bottle: The best thing Troublemaker had going for it was its fun, attention-grabbing label.

Worried that I might have been too quick to judge the Troublemaker wine by its looks, I decided to ask a few friends to look at a larger collection of bottles with me, including one who is a graphic designer, and another who works in advertising. I gathered a diverse assortment of labels: attractive ones that displayed useful information, flashy ones with catchy designs and bright colors, as well as labels with foreign words that beginner wine drinkers often find uninviting.

Labels that adorned bottles of German rieslings were among the more confusing of the mix. “That’s made with riesling?” asked my advertising friend as she pointed to a wine called “Piesporter Michelsberg Spätlese.” I nodded. “But how do you know? It doesn’t say it anywhere on there.” She didn’t believe me until she flipped the bottle over and read it for herself on the back label, which also showed tasting descriptions and a tiny map of the region.

German labels are easily some of the most perplexing I’ve ever encountered; riddled with words like kabinett, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese, and trockenbeerenauslese, they can be tough to decipher, let alone pronounce. The intimidating vernacular — part of a German naming system that classifies wines based on a hierarchy of grape ripeness — can make you feel like you need to learn a second language to understand what you’re buying. But all you need in order to master their meanings is the ability to identify a few key words. The classifications start at the bottom with kabinett, which indicates a wine made with the first-picked grapes. It gradually increases with the grapes’ level of ripeness, with overripe trockebeernauslese wines at the top.

Germany’s not the only country that produces such puzzling labels. In fact, a lot of European wines can seem foreign to the average American consumer who isn’t familiar with words outside the English language. “No American is going to buy this,” one friend said as I pulled out a skinny bottle of muscadet decorated from top to bottom with French phrases in a fancy cursive font. “What do all these gold scripty words even mean?” The bottle may have looked regal and showy, but the wine inside is affordable and perfect for everyday drinking.

The classic styled labels weren’t a hit, so I pulled out a modern-looking bottle of wine called Grooner, made from grüner veltliner, a lesser-known white grape from Austria. The bright, lime green front label included helpful tips like: “Perfect for parties” and “great with food,” but my friend, the graphic designer was less than impressed. “Ugh! That one looks like a project I did back in college.”

The Grooner label may have lacked sophistication, but the bedazzled bottle of Spanish wine that sat next to it did not. “Is that label made out of real metal?” asked another friend as he pointed to the label, which looked like an award-winning medal had been plated onto the bottle. “How expensive is that wine? I bet that’ll cost me more money.” But, priced at $25, the bottle of tempranillo from Cigales was much fancier than the rustic wine inside.

After analyzing and judging the look of each label, we opened them to test their taste. Opinions were mixed, but we agreed that a wine and its label are not always a true match. We’ve all been told to never judge a book by its cover. In the world of wine, the same rule rings true. Often times, the wine and the label share absolutely nothing in common.

I don’t bring this up to diminish the importance of an attractive wine label — wine labels absolutely matter. They’re often the most important marketing investment a winery can make. All wine drinkers — young and old — pay attention to how a bottle of wine looks.

“When people don’t know which wine to pick, they buy based on what the label looks like,” said Liz Thach, a professor of wine marketing at Sonoma State University who studies the purchasing habits of wine buyers. “It’s similar to perfume. Often times, the bottle is what attracts people.”

According to Thach, 37 percent of all American consumers decide on which wine to buy based solely on its label. No wonder wineries devote so much time and money to perfecting them — labels are essentially the platform for a wine’s first impression. If a wine label doesn’t catch your attention in the sea of hundreds of others next to it, you’ll likely never think to purchase it.

But looks alone can only get you so far. Choosing a bottle based on a well-designed, aesthetically-pleasing label or a catchy name doesn’t always mean the wine inside will be as attractive. Remember, a label’s appearance is the direct result of graphic designing and marketing — neither have anything to do with winemaking.

I used to work at a job that required me to sort and catalog hundreds of bottles of wines. I spent countless hours looking at and thinking about wine labels. I’ve seen flashy and unconventional labels, as well as traditional ones that included illustrations of chateaus and elegant fonts. I’ve come across labels as uninformative as Troublemaker’s, as well as ones that totally over-share. What does a chardonnay from New Zealand with an acidity level of 7.6 g/L taste like exactly? And who would follow the specific suggestion, “pair with venison with a huckleberry reduction” listed on the back of a California syrah? These are not very useful tips.

While the most intimate details aren’t necessary, it’s always beneficial to know a little bit about the wine inside. When deciding on which bottle to buy, it helps to have access to a few details about its production, such as basic information like which grapes it was made from, or how long it was aged in oak. The more helpful and descriptive a wine label is, and the better you understand what those words mean, the likelier it is you’ll want to taste what’s inside. Below are a few basic tips to follow when trying to read a wine label.

All that specific information on “intimidating” European wine labels is there to help. Become familiar with them. I’ve already addressed some aspects of labels, such as what reserva and riserva mean, as well as the concept of old vines. But following these guidelines can prove useful as well:

A pretty label does not always equal a pretty wine. Looks can be incredibly deceiving. Just because an attractive label caught your eye doesn’t mean the wine inside will be as beautiful. Take the time to read what it says, and don’t disqualify a bottle by its appearance. Remember, the person responsible for the wine inside isn’t the same person who crafted its label.

Don’t only look for grape names. You’ll miss a ton of great wines if you do. European regions, particularly France and Italy, name their wines after geographic places. So it’s helpful to know a little bit of geography and which grapes constitute these wines. For example, wines from Bordeaux are commonly blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc, reds from Burgundy are produced from pinot noir grapes, and Chablis always means chardonnay. Wines from Tuscany are primarily made with sangiovese, Barolo is never anything but 100 percent nebbiolo, and reds from Rioja are often a blend of tempranillo and garnacha.

The more specific the geographical information is, the better. If a bottle of wine says it’s from California, that means the grapes used to make it could have come from any number of the state’s growing regions. You have a better bet with a wine from a particular place like Napa Valley or Sonoma County than you do from a general designation. The same rule applies to wines from all over the world. France and Italy have a bunch of specific terms that often signify a wine bottled from a single vineyard, which typically means it is higher in quality.

Cru on a French label indicates a specific vineyard, and grand cru references a specially designated vineyard that makes top-quality wines. If you see the word clos being used next to the name of a vineyard, it just means the plot of land is enclosed. And the phrase propiétaire-récoltant signifies that the grower of the grapes both produced the wine and bottled it — an indication of a wine made with a high standard of quality.

In Italy, bricco is a common word used on Piemontese wines that refers to a vineyard on the top of a hill. Tuscany uses a similar phrase, poggio, which signifies vineyards or a winery located on a hillside. And if you see fattoria on a label, it just means the winery estate is located on a farm that grows more than just grapes.

Be conscious of what information is missing. While it’s not uncommon for ports or sparkling wines to not include a vintage, you never want to drink a still wine without a year listed on the label. And if a bottle of wine doesn’t have a specific designation listed on it, it certainly won’t express any sense of place, and it probably isn’t going to taste too pleasant either.


I’ve selected the bottles below to showcase that the quality of the wine inside doesn’t always match your perception of the label on the outside. Wine labels can be extremely helpful and important — even the most intimidating looking ones.

Grooner Grüner Veltliner 2012

Niederösterreich, Austria, 12% ABV, $9.99
The label may scream “graphic design student!” at first glance, but it helps makes grüner veltliner, the most widely planted grape in Austria, more approachable than ever. Even its name helps you learn how to pronounce the unusual white grape variety. With huge aromas of green apples and grapefruit, this juicy, zippy, wine is full of tropical fruit, and is as easy drinking and fun as its label claims it to be. And yes, it’s a wine that’s “Perfect for parties, great with food, and picnics too!”

Domaine de la Pépière Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Clos des Briords 2011

Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, Loire Valley, France, 12% ABV, $14.99
Wow, what a mouthful of words. But don’t let the gold scripty font and “frightening” French language on the label keep you from trying this wine — they all serve a purpose. Made from the melon de Bourgogne grape in the Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine appellation of the Loire Valley (between the Sèvre and Maine rivers), this light-colored white wine is full of crisp minerality and sea salt, with pear on the palate and a creamy finish — the result of being made sur lie, meaning it was aged on the lees, or dead yeast cells. All of the grapes used for this wine came from a single vineyard — Clos des Briords — and from old vines, vielles vignes.

Bodegas O. Fournier “Urban Maule Red Blend” 2009

Valle del Maule, Chile, 14% ABV, $8.29
This Chilean red may have a simple front label, but flip the bottle over and you’ll find all the details that hint to exactly what the wine inside will taste like. A blend of mostly cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, and a splash of carignan, this wine smells like a bowl of juicy red cherries garnished with a sprig of mint. Because the wine was fermented in stainless steel tanks and spent only three months in French oak barrels, the fresh fruit aromas and flavors are prevalent, and the only oak influence in this wine is its tannic structure, which you feel on the finish. Useful, helpful, and easy-to-understand labeling at its finest.

Feature photo by Rachel Wisniewski

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on and She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.


  1. jill lounsbury says:

    Great article, Mary! Loved the descriptions in your recommendations. Maybe you could do a follow-up on what one can generally expect from the more common regions/ grape varieties!

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