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The Wine Label

Personalized Wine Label

It has become popular to create personalized wine labels for that special occasion. A custom wine label can be made for you in virtually any style you choose. You can select from many quality producers of custom wine bottle labels. Or wine label software allows you to create custom printable wine labels yourself. With wine label graphics and wine label templates you can create your own customized wine bottle label. Just insert a blank wine label in your printer and create your own private label wine.

For the myriad of commercial wine producers, here is what goes into the labels for their wine.

Judging A Wine By Its Label

More people choose wines by their labels than are willing to admit it. Novices reach for artistic labels, snobs insist on famous names. But in fact, a wine label reveals a great deal of knowledge, particularly about the flavors in the bottle. You can begin your tasting even before you've pulled the cork.

Traditionally, labels were used to identify wine and to reveal a little bit regarding quality to the consumer. They still do serve that purpose. However, today keenly aware marketing professionals and federally regulated terminology you have to read a wine label carefully and you need to read between the lines!

Required Information

In the U.S. the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), requires certain information to appear on the label. Actually, it's mandatory. But be careful. The information required by the ATF has nothing to do with quality.

The European Union's wine authorities require still other information to appear on a label which does include terms that specify the quality of the wine. So the confusion of judging a wine by its label begins right from the start.

US law requires five designations on a wine label:

Wine Labels
  1. Brand Name (usually the winery name)
  2. Type (e.g. table wine, dessert wine or sparkling wine)
  3. Bottled (Not grown, vinified, or produced, but simply where it was bottled.)
  4. Alcohol by Volume. Be careful with this as it can be misleading. For table wine, the U.S. requirement is a minimum alcohol level of 7% and a maximum of 14%. The law allows a 1.5% variance. Therefore, wine could actually be 14% alcohol or 11% and legally be labeled 12.5%. wines cannot exceed the upper or lower limit. The alcohol-by-volume range for sherries is 17% to 20%. For ports it's 18% to 20%. Both sherries and port have a label variance of 1%.
  5. Net Contents (e.g. 750 ml). This could be impressed in the bottle.

There Are Three Kinds of Labels:

  • Varietal-based (wine made from a single variety of grape)
  • Terroir-based (physical factors of a given vineyard or wine region)
  • Sheer fantasy (whatever is desired)

Varietal Based Labels

These are wines are named for the grape variety that makes up all (or some legally defined minimum) of the juice in the bottle. California pioneered this method, and most of the New World producers have adopted it. However, some European wine regions have traditionally followed this approach - for example Alsace in France and Friuli in Italy. For a U.S. wine label to bear the name of the varietal, it must be made with no less that 75% of that grape in the total blend.

Terroir Based Labels

This label is very informative. Terroir is a French word that encapsulates all the physical factors which distinguish a given vineyard or wine region - its soil (chalky, claylike, gravelly, sandy) and geographic factors such as exposure, altitude, climate, slope, the aspect of slope, etc. These wines may be made from a single grape variety (such as Pinot Noir for red wines in Burgundy) or a blend that may vary by vintage (such as Bordeaux's judicious mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). Most European wines, however, use terroir-based labeling.

Fantasy Labels

Some winemakers have found themselves so frustrated by local wine regulations - which may dictate certain grape blends or vinification techniques as prerequisites to obtaining labels, whether based on varietal or terroir - that they abandon traditional approaches and use labels based simply on fantasy. In Tuscany, producers determined to make new-style wines abandoned the terroir-based Chianti labels for the humble designation vino da tavola (table wine). In California, winemakers working with the grapes and flexible blending approach of Bordeaux have given up some varietal-based labels to bottle "Meritage" wines.

Deciphering the Label

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Each kind of label gives different clues to the wine inside the bottle, but all labels include a few basics. For example, the producer's name is always prominent. Most wineries develop consistent signatures, based on their location, wine making skills and marketing goals; once you're familiar with a winery's profile, the producer's name is perhaps the most reliable indicator of wine style and quality.

Appellations

Most labels indicate the region where the grapes were grown and the wine made. On terroir-based labels, this is emphasized. Varietal-based labels also generally indicate appellations (though often in small type), sometimes right down to the name of the vineyard. Fantasy labels often avoid any mention of origin at all (some-times the laws won't permit their indication). But since fantasy wines deliberately break with the traditions of their regions, origin doesn't mean that much, anyway.

The name of numerous European wines come from the actual growing region or appellation. In other areas like the United States and Australia, where the wine is more frequently named for the grape variety. Some producers also list the growing region on the label, particularly if the area is prominent. For example, the Napa Valley in the United States and the Hunter Valley in Australia are examples of well-known grape growing regions. In the United States, where such growing regions are called American Viticultural Areas (AVA), at least 85% of the grapes must come from a single AVA for the region's name to be used on the label. In the U.S. the "official" grape growing regions must be designated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

Appellation d'Origine Controlee   (AOC)  The top of the line, AOC applies to French wines from precisely specified regions, and with the most rigid controls, specified by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). The items controlled include the: variety of grapes, density and size of vines, maximum yield, minimum alcohol level, method of culture and vinification. AOC wines will be the most exclusive and, of course, the most expensive wines.

Vintage

This is the year in which the grapes were harvested, not the year in which the wine was bottled, which for some wines may be years later. The wine's vintage is almost always shown on the label. If you're familiar with the vintages of a given region, this can be a revealing indicator. For example red Bordeaux was mostly light and diluted in 1992, but rich and concentrated in 1990. However, even if you don't know whether a specific vintage was good or bad, knowing how old a wine is indicates something about its current style: young, fresh and fruity, or older, smoother and more complex. Most whites, and a great deal of reds, are best within three years of the vintage. You will find that wines which age well increase in price over time. However, look out for old, inexpensive wines. Most national wine laws require that at least 85 percent of the wine be harvested in the year of vintage; up to 15 percent may be blended in from other years.

Wine Maker / Winery

Wine Bottle Labels

The company or firm that made the wine or, in some cases, the wine's trademark name.

Variety

The variety means the specific kind of grapes from which the wine was made. Not all wines disclose varietal content. Most French and Italian wines do not. Most other countries allow the use of some non-varietal grapes in the blend. In the U.S. (most states) only 75% of the wine's content must be of the named varietal. In Europe and Australia, the rule is usually 85%.

Estate Bottled Wine

When a wine has Estate Bottled on its label it must meet the requirements of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) where the wine must come from grapes grown completely on the grounds of the winery. The wine must be made and bottled at the winery.

Reserve Wine

Not far back in history "Reserve," as in Private Reserve, Proprietor's Reserve, or simply Reserve, communicated a useful and noble notion to wine consumers. However, because it was never regulated, the Reserve designation was susceptible to abuse. A increasing number of wine companies are abusing the term by labeling all the bottles in their warehouses a Reserve. Some wineries use the term Reserve for the bottling of a special wine. Typically these wines are of higher quality and/or of limited production. On the other hand, the term Reserve can be used as a marketing strategy and may not be special in any way. . In the U.S. the term Reserve Wine has no legal meaning.

The Cost

Finally, don't forget the price tag, stuck right there next to the label. A wine's price is determined by the demand for it, the supply available, and by factors such as vintage or varietal. Although there may be wide inconsistencies between a wine's cost and its quality, more often than not, there is a rough correlation.

Under $5 per bottle, the wine is likely to be simple, offering alcohol as its principal virtue. From $5 to $12, most wines offer fresh fruit, enough structure to marry well with food and some individual personality. From $12 to, say, $50, you can expect complex flavors of ripe fruit and new oak, enough concentration to develop with aging and a distinctive character stamped with the wine's creator and origin. Pay any more, and you enter into a rarefied world inhabited by passionate and deep-pocketed collectors; the rest of us usually pass by with a shake of the head.

But as in any commodity, the price you pay is partly made up of the actual value and in part the perceived value.

Wineries put a lot of effort into their labels. Savvy wine lovers can decipher what the law says they must say, what the producers want to say and sometimes more than they intend to say. Spend some time studying labels before you buy and you'll increase your chances of finding a wine to suit your tastes.

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