A true bargain wine hunter will always deconstruct a wine label. It helps you to decide whether a bottle of wine on a shelf is worthy of a purchase. The more you know about a wine, the better chance you have of getting your money’s worth and much more. The very first thing you’ll want to know is who made the wine.
For domestic wine, turn to the back label on the bottle. If it says
“Produced and Bottled by” it means that by law 75% or more of the wine in that bottle must be made by the producer listed.
“Made and Bottled” it means at least 10% of the wine is made by the winery or company listed.
“Vinted and Bottled” it means the winery on the label may have had little to do with the making of this wine.
Some big name wineries have “Vinted and Bottled” on some of their entry-level wines. For example, I recently grabbed a Buena Vista Carneros Merlot off the shelf and was surprised to see that this famous and historic winery had “Vinted and Bottled” this wine. No wonder it was selling for less than $10 a bottle. Who knows who really made this wine? There are three more important things on this label to decipher, the vintage date of 2009 and the terms “Carneros”and “Merlot.” The vintage tells us that 95% of the wine in the bottle had to be harvested in 2009. Because Carneros is on the label, 85% of the wine must come from the Carneros AVA. Because Merlot is on the label, the wine must be produced from 75% of Merlot grapes.
Sometimes a store like Costco or Trader Joe’s will commission a winery to produce a wine for its store label. Costco uses the label name of Kirkland Signature. If you look at the back of the label of any of these wines you will find who “Produced and Bottled” the wine for Costco. Example: the Renwood Winery in the Sierra Foothills produces The Kirkland Grandmere Old Vine Zinfandel. Other Kirkland Signature wines are made by a negotiant. Example: The Kirkland Signature Rutherford Meritage is produced and bottled by the D.C. Flynt company.
Trader Joe’s has it own label but in addition has wines produced under a catchy label. The latest of these is St. Somewhere Syrah. A look at the back label will tell you the wine was “Produced and Bottled” by Castoro winery, a big wine producer in Paso Robles.
Two unregulated terms that are commonly used as a sales pitch are “Reserve” and “Old Vine.” There is no legal definition of the term “Reserve.” However, the term infers that the production of this wine has received special attention. There is also no legal requirement for how old a vineyard must be to be designated as old vine.
If the grape variety is on the label, the wine must contain at least 75% of the named varietal.
2. Name of the Winery or brand name.
3. Wine Region – This tells you where the grapes came from. If the specific wine region or “American Viticultural Area” like Napa is on the label, at least 85% of the grapes must come from that region. If the wine is labeled by county, such as Mendocino County, a minimum of 75% of the grapes must come from that county. Even if the wine region on the label is simply “California,” as in many well-priced wines, you can be assured that 100% of the grapes are from California.
4. Vineyard – Sometimes you’ll see the name of a specific vineyard on the label, which indicates that a minimum of 95% of the grapes came from one particular vineyard.
5. “Produced and Bottled By” indicates that the wine producer also is the bottler of the wine, and “Estate Bottled,” means the wine was also made from grapes grown on the producer’s property.
6. Winemaking Information – Optional terms like “barrel fermented,” “sur lie,” and “oak aged” provide more clues about the style and flavor of the bottle. All of these terms point to a toasty, oaky, and more complex wine. Special tip: Some winemakers include their tasting notes and food recommendations on the back label.
7. Location of Bottler – The location of the producer or bottler will also appear on this line
8. Alcohol by Volume – In a table wine, the alcohol level ranges from 8.5-14%, give or take a small percentage.
9. Bottle Size – The volume of the bottle contents. 750 ml is a standard size bottle and is the equivalent of 25.4 ounces.