Can you judge a wine by its label? Surprisingly, yes! Whether you’re taking a new client out for a long Christmas lunch or stocking your wine rack for holiday entertaining, understanding wine labels will help you choose the perfect bottle for the occasion.
Every country has different laws regarding wine labelling, so it’s easy to become confused when faced with so many names, languages and label styles on the shop shelves or wine list. But if you know how to read a wine label, you can use the standard information provided to guide you. Here’s what to look for.
Shiraz, riesling or chardonnay? In Australia, if a wine lists a single grape on its label, it must contain at least 85% of that variety. If the wine’s blend includes 15% or more of a second grape, that must be listed too (for example, a cabernet merlot will be at least 15% merlot). So right away you know what’s in your bottle, and whether you may like it.
Australia’s straightforward labelling system differs from that of Old World countries, which generally name regions on their labels but not grape varieties. European wine producers assume you know that Chablis only makes chardonnay and Chianti is primarily sangiovese!
The year on the label (vintage) is when the grapes were harvested. Growing conditions, and therefore wine characteristics, vary from year to year. Over time you will become familiar with the vintage patterns of your favourite wines. NV on the label means non-vintage. These wines blend grapes from different vintages to ensure consistency across the years. Most French champagnes are NV, unless they’re specified as millesime, in which case all the grapes come from the same year. A champagne producer will only make a millesime in an exceptional year, so if you’re looking for a special bottle, this is a safe choice.
Where did the grapes come from? Some regions are justifiably known for particular varieties, such as Coonawarra and cabernet sauvignon or Claire Valley and riesling. Choosing a single varietal wine from its best region means the wine will reflect the land’s unique personality. In this case, the label usually displays the region prominently alongside the grape variety.
A wine from ‘South Eastern Australia’ can include grapes from South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and thus has less regional character.
Alcohol level (or alcohol by volume / ABV)
More than just a health consideration, the listed alcohol content indicates how the wine might taste. Typically, higher alcohol wines (above 14%) are more full-bodied and made from riper grapes, which give your wine more forward fruit flavours.
Looking for damage limitation without sacrificing taste? Some grapes naturally have lower alcohol levels, such as Hunter Valley semillon and German riesling. A new wave of lighter Australian reds seems made for summer drinking. Be careful if your wine contains more than 15% ABV – you may be less likely to return to the office after your team lunch!
Without a doubt, tasting is still the best way to find new favourite wines. But the good news is that learning to read wine labels will unlock the mystery of what’s in the bottle and help you confidently choose your wine, whether you’re looking to impress over a business lunch or entertaining at home for the holidays.