Atlas Valley Purveyors
Boulder County's only family general store.


Understanding Wine Labels

Understanding Wine Labels Part I

Wine labels can be important sources of information for consumers since they tell the type and origin of the wine. Some wine labels contain a lot of information; some crucial to identifying what is in the bottle, and some not so much. Understanding a wine label may not always tell you how the wine tastes but it can help you get a better picture of exactly what you are buying.

Information often on the wine label, are national labeling requirements such as the country of origin, quality, type of wine, alcohol percentage, sulfite content, producer, bottler, or importer. 

Two styles of wine labels are commonly found in stores: wines identified by brand name or designated by its appellation credentials. A wine that is labeled by its brand will generally indicate what grapes it’s made of on the front label (e.g., “chardonnay” or “red blend”). A wine that is identified by its appellation credentials relies on the appellation’s quality level rules and regulations to indicate what’s in the bottle. As noted by Wine Folly, “A perfect example of an appellation wine is Chablis: Nowhere on a Chablis label is a mention of chardonnay as the grape, nor that Chablis is typically an unoaked chardonnay.”

Understanding Wine Labels Part II
3 examples of how wine is labeled:
By Variety – labelling by grape variety (e.g., Chardonnay), is common in new world wines of the US, Australia, New Zealand, etc. and therefore most familiar to American consumers. Labeling laws in each country dictate the minimum percentage of the grape varietal required for it to be identified on the label:

75% - USA, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia
80% - Argentina
85% - Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Portugal

By Region – most common in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, knowing the grapes that make up the wine requires some knowledge of the region and appellation. For example, the region of Bordeaux grows mostly cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Appellation credentials are awarded to regional producers following strict rules determined by the country governing which grapes are allowed, crop yield, alcohol percentage and quality level.

By Name – generally a blend of grape varieties unique to the producer (e.g., Orin Swift’s “The Prisoner”). Named wines can also be found on some single varietal wines from the same producer to distinguish between wines a producer makes (e.g.,Orin Swift’s “Palermo” Cabernet Sauvignon and “Mannequin” Chardonnay).

Understanding Wine Labels Part III
5 Basic Parts To A Wine Label

  1. Producer or Name The producer name is either obvious or in small text at the top or the bottom of the label (such as many French wine label examples). This is who made the wine. It’s important to note that some American wine labels that only have a Wine Name (such as Apothic Red) are branded wines from larger wine companies. Apothic Red is a branded wine by E&J Gallo–the producer.

  2. Region The region indicates from where the grapes were sourced to produce the wine. A wine from a larger (read: more vague) region is typically a value wine whereas a wine from a specific vineyard site often indicates a higher quality regional designation (i.e. “California” vs. “Santa Rita Hills” AVA). If a wine is from a specific vineyard site, that site will be indicated in quotations (i.e. “Les Suchots”) or located right below the region designation (ie Vosne Romanee Les Suchots). Generally, as you narrow the source to a specific site, the quality level becomes more refined and the price increases.

  3. Variety or Appellation The variety refers to what grape or grapes are used in making the wine–Merlot for example, or CMS Blend (Cab, Merlot, Syrah). Many blends will not reveal the constituent grapes nor the percentage that each makes of the whole. If there is no varietal given, look for the Appellation, which can give you clues to what varietals were used based on the rules governing that region. There are 15 nations with officially regulated appellations, though the strictness of the rules and what matters varies wildly among them.

  4. Vintage or Non-Vintage (NV) The year that the grapes were harvested is the vintage. The vintage tells a lot about a wine if you are familiar with vintage variations. As a general rule, multi-vintage wines or “NV” wines are lower value wines, because they have the ease of pulling wine from multiple vintages to control the flavor.

  5. Alcohol by Volume (ABV) The alcohol level actually says a lot about a wine. Many European wine regions only allow their highest quality wines to have 13.5% ABV and above. In America, ABVs can be quite high (up to 17% on some dry wines) and the alcohol level is an indication of how rich/big the wine may taste. Many higher alcohol wines are made from riper grapes and tend to have more fruit forward flavors. Again, this is a generalization and there are exceptions to the rule.


2009 vintage was hot in Chablis, drink lemonade instead.


The indication of Reserve sounds fancy but it doesn’t actually mean anything official. There are no rules to what a reserve wine is and thus this word on a bottle could mean nothing at all. Many small producers use it to indicate their top-tier wines that use the winemaker’s highest quality production wines from the best barrels. Take this indicator with a grain of salt if the wine you’d like to buy seems too good to be true.

Source: Wine Folly & Wikipedia