You head to your local wine store, looking for a zesty Sauv Blanc. You pick up a bottle…then panic sets in. Is that the name of the grape or the winemaker? And what the heck is a vintage anyway? Wine labels can be as hard to decipher as your mother-in-law’s last text. Picking a bottle should be as fun as drinking it, so we’re giving you all the essential knowledge (so you’ll never be intimidated by a wine label again).
Here’s How to Read a Wine Label (and Impress Everyone at Your Dinner Party)
Find Out Where It’s From
Old World: Wines from countries that have been producing for centuries are considered “Old World.” Think France or Italy. Their labels can be pretty daunting (um, can someone translate this German for us?), and the format can differ from place to place…so it can take a little longer to find what you’re looking for.
New World: Countries that are relatively new to the wine game are called “New World.” This includes New Zealand, Argentina and the United States, to name a few. Lucky for you, these labels tend to be straightforward and relatively easy to read: You'll find the type of wine, region and vintage right on the front.
Look For Key Elements
No matter where a wine comes from, all bottles feature the same standard information. Here’s what to look out for.
The producer: Aka whoever grew the grapes (and probably made the wine, too). On American wines, it’s usually front and center. On foreign wines, you might have to do a little searching on the back label.
The region: This can be broad, like “vin du France,” or as specific as the vineyard. Psst: Did you know that a wine’s taste is influenced by its origin? That’s because of a little something called terroir (pronounced tare-wah), or the characteristics of the land. An example: Grapes from cool climates yield tart, acidic wines; grapes from warm climates make ripe, fruit-forward wines. Thirsty yet?
The varietal: That’s fancy-talk for the type of grape, whether it’s just one or a blend. New World wines will tell you the varietal right away, but Old World wines don’t usually list the varietal. Instead, they give an appellation. (Stay with us!)
The appellation: Old World wines have ultra-specific regulations about the grapes grown in certain areas, or appellations. (Don’t worry, we were confused, too.) Think of it this way: A bottle of Chablis won’t say the varietal on the label, because it’s required by government regulation that the Chablis region can only use Chardonnay grapes. So even though it's made with Chardonnay grapes, it would only say "Chablis," because the rest is assumed. Complicated, right?
The vintage: The year when the grapes were harvested. We know what you’re thinking: Does that even matter? Yep. Wines can taste different from year to year, depending on weather and growing conditions.
Alcohol by volume (ABV): Aside from getting you boozy, this can affect the taste: The more alcohol, the richer the wine, and vice versa. Stay below 14 percent if you’re not a fan of full-bodied.
Turn The Bottle Over
Flip that baby around and examine the back label. You can learn a lot from the front, but let’s be extra thorough, shall we?
The importer: So you can thank the person who brought that buttery Chard to your hands (if you’re into buttery Chard). If you like one wine from an importer, chances are, you’ll like more. But how’s that different from the winemaker, you say? The importer is kind of like a wine curator: They choose the tastiest foreign wines to bring stateside (but they don’t make the wine).
The extras: Congrats! You made it this far. If you’re lucky, the producer has shared a slew of details on the glou-glou you’re about to enjoy, like winemaking practices and profile notes. And just like that, you’re a label-reading pro. Now get drinking.