The content of a wine label can be quite complicated or in some cases very minimal. It carries some information that can help the consumer determine the characteristics of the wine and evaluate it before making a purchase. The information differs based on the country of origin and local laws that are specific to each type of wine. Labeling regulations are intended to prevent wine from sounding better than it is – like using the term “Reserve” or “Grand Cru”, just because it looks cool on the label. While the winemaker decides what goes on the label, the content is tightly regulated by various government agencies, state, AVA, vintners organizations and co-ops. We know those rules are important but ultimately, we care more about the good stuff… You know, what’s INSIDE the bottle! So how does the taste of the wine translate to the label?
There are 2 major types of wine labels: the one that is labelled by its brand or producer’s name, and the other that is defined by its appellation, like Châteauneuf du Pape (France) or Santa Ynez Valley (California). The brand wine will often specify which type of wine is inside the bottle (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or the different varietals in the case of a blend). The appellation will rely on the credentials and rules of the wine grape-growing region (AOC or AVA), geographic features and boundaries to determine what is inside the bottle. For example, a Châteauneuf du Pape label never says Côtes du Rhône, even though it is from the Rhône region, nor does it mention the varietals (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Clairette, etc…)
A wine label consists of two important parts: the design & the content. The role of the design is to get the potential buyer’s attention. The content is there to hopefully “close the deal”.
A casual wine buyer often relies on the style, color and overall design of the label for his purchase. They walk down the aisle of their favorite wine shop, hunting down their next catch and suddenly… BAM! A beautiful wine label catches their attention. That’s step one. Conveniently, step 2 involves reading the various information printed on the label, i.e. the content. The design is the bait, and the content is the “wine story” that will ultimately lead to a purchase.
Like I said earlier, the winemaker is often the person who decides what goes on the label. Certain information is ordinarily included, such as the country, the region (or appellation control if applicable), type of wine, quality, vintage, alcoholic degree, volume, producer and/or name of the wine (brand). Other optional content includes:
• Blend information
• Aging specifications
• Tasting notes from the winemaker himself
• Biodynamic, sustainable, organic, or natural
• Bottler and importer name or organization (if the wine is imported from another country or exclusive to a specific retailer like Trader Joe’s and the infamous 2 Buck Chuck)
• Sulfites• Allergen warnings
• Government warnings
So that just about covers it for the main label, but let’s not forget the neck and back labels. The neck label often carries the vintage information. It adds a bit of a traditional flare to the bottle and reminds those of aged French wines. As far as I know there are no rules that dictates the use of the neck label. The back label features the UPC and some useless government spiel to remind us that we shouldn’t drink wine if we’re pregnant, and our driving abilities will be greatly impaired. Geez, thanks!
Lately, there’s been a tendency to simplify label content. Certain mentions like “Château” and “Domain” can be perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned by some people. As a result of a study targeting young wine drinkers, winemakers from around the world are making an effort to simplify wine labels, in an attempt to make them more appealing to the younger crowd. Some labels are more playful and inviting, therefore making the selecting and purchasing process easy and non-intimidating. Beside, winemakers know that you are just one click away from reading everything there’s to know about a wine on the internet. So even if the label remains minimal, all it really needs is one of those little QR codes.
• Should wine be purchased based on its label design?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t always buy wine based on the label but when I do, I let the design and the content tell me the “story behind the wine”. I have tried a lot of different wines, and I can safely say that when/if I like the label, I also like the wine. I always assume that the team responsible for the design choices is also in charge of the winemaking process. Take Dave Phinney’s wines for example. I really connect with the winemaker’s artistic and design sensitivity, and I happen to really like his wine. Coincidence? Well, no one knows for sure, but I do believe there’s a strong connection between the label design and the taste of the wine. Steve Jacobson, the other writer on this blog, doesn’t agree. Labels do help inform the consumer what they are buying, and certainly packaging is important. But his belief is it almost doesn’t make any difference how the wine is packaged if it’s a great wine for the value.
It may seem that buying wine based on the label is a bit shallow. But I believe that it definitely adds another dimension to discovering new wines. Unlike more traditional methods, like tasting rooms at the winery, wine scores and point systems, wine blogs like this one, it allows you to be more adventurous. So go wild and let the label speak to you before you try the wine. It has a lot to say… we just need to listen (or in that case, read).
That said, I’m sure there are exceptions to the above theory, and I would love to hear about them. Have you ever had a wine you loved, but didn’t care for the label? Or vice versa? This is your time to write. Santé!