One look at the label is worth a thousand words
by Anthony Gismondi
Okay I admit to watching the television series Elementary if only because anything to do with Sherlock Holmes has always fascinated me. Deductive reasoning is a fabulous life skill to acquire, hone, nourish and improve upon over life and well, damned useful if you are interested in wine.
Mr. Holmes would suggest great detectives use everything at their disposal to solve a mystery and it is that kind of mindset required to deduce all the information a wine label has to offer. How much information is that you say? Well, now that you ask, quite a lot. In fact, if you know where to look and how to interpret the clues, a label will tell you a great deal about the juice inside the bottle. I might add that what’s missing on the label could be equally valuable to a knowledgeable buyer.
There is no doubt labels have become a major focus of marketers over the last decade. Labels have become so important to some it’s not a stretch to suggest some are created before the wine. In my thirty plus years of tasting I can say with confidence that after a site visit the label is the single most important information source about a wine and likely the number one memory source for consumers.
Which begs the question, why do producers continually take part in dinners and tastings where the wine bottles are regularly removed from the room before consumers walk in. It has become so routine not to see bottles at tastings I often wonder if it’s part of the training at WSET and or its equivalent programs where staff are instructed to make sure ‘no one sees the bottles’. But I digress.
Some labels reveal a wealth of information about the wine while others use technical innovations like QR codes to send you to online videos and websites to learn more about the bottle in your hand.
My favourite QR codes send you to a short video, say 30-40 seconds, where you meet the winemaker, they are standing in the vineyard where the grapes are grown, and he or she says something that makes you want to taste the wine.
From hugely informative to completely dumbed down there is an ever varying selection of labels on wine bottles. The trick is to sidestep the marketing, if you can, and learn how to interpret the front and back label to be able to grab the information you need to make an informed buying decision. This month we look at some of the information most likely to help you when you are looking at any wine label and how you might go about deducing what’s important, especially when it appears on a bottle you don’t know all that well.
WHO MADE IT
There is no underestimating that knowing something about the producer can be extremely useful when buying wine. It doesn’t mean an unknown grower/producer should be shunned but all things being equal, say price and vintage, it is often safer to choose a bottle from a known leader in the region. So, if you can pick up a bottle of Cotes du Rhone red from Famille Perrin or M. Chapoutier versus an unknown grower the choice is obvious. In Burgundy, if your choice is Faiveley or Drouhin versus another unknown shipper well, you get the picture. Reputations count over time. To demonstrate the theory Michel Chapoutier star of the Rhone is the man behind M. Chapoutier 2011 Marius Grenache Syrah 2011, Languedoc, South of France. In fact it doesn’t get more real at $15.
WHEN WAS IT MADE
I’m a bit of a vintage freak no matter what I’m spending on a bottle of wine and it doesn’t take much to learn a bit about current vintages. For instance 2010 was an excellent vintage in Australia better than ’08 or ’09 and ’11 and ’12 so given the choice take the 2010 red when you are shopping. In the Rhone, 2011 was good but 2009 and 2010 were outstanding. Again all things equal you would choose the ’09 or ’10 before the 11. Locally in the Okanagan 2012 and 2013 will be much better years than either ’09, ‘10’ or ’11.
What if there is no vintage on the label? What is the message? Usually the wine is a blend of years and it’s often done to improve weaker vintages. In the cased of multi-vintage champagne it is done to add complexity to the blend. As for the date itself, the vintage will tell you how old or how young a wine is giving you more keys about to what to expect when you age or pour the wine. In the case of many fine red wines seven to ten years is a normal amount of time it can spend in bottle before it begins to hit its stride.
In the case of the Taittinger N/V Brut Reserve, a favourite go-to bubble of mine, it is a mix of several vintages that when combined give the wine an added bit of underlying complexity that comes with age. In this case non-vintage is really multi-vintage.
You will need more specific knowledge of appellations or classified wines if you want to know what is inside bottles of European wines but with a little reading and a bit of memory much can be revealed. In Italy, DOCG Barolo means it is made with the nebbiolo grape. AOC Burgundy means pinot noir (red) or chardonnay (white), while the D.O. Rioja could mean any combination of tempranillo, garnacha, mazuelo and graciano. On another level many sites or vineyards are classified. Terms like Grand Cru, Premier Cru point you to the best terroir while Gran Reserva, at least in Spain speaks to the amount of ageing in barrel and bottle a wine is given. Almost all are clues to a wine’s pedigree and worth. It takes a lifetime to embrace this information but knowing the classification means knowing the wine. It’s all on the label.
At Chablis the pinnacle of production is among the seven officially delineated Grand Cru climats, covering an area of 100 hectares. The sites, Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, Blanchot are all located on a single, southwest facing hill overlooking the town of Chablis. A recent William Fèvre 2011 Chablis Bougros Côte Bouguerots Grand Cru reminded me of how sublime Grand Cru Chablis can be in top vintages.
It never hurts to know which grapes are the bottle. If it’s a varietal wine the mystery is easily solved because the grape variety is almost always printed on the label. But did you know a great deal of varietal wine contains more than one single grape. Adding 10 percent syrah or merlot to cabernet sauvignon can really change the style. Carefully check the labels, front and back, for additional mentions about other grapes in the blend it will help you better ascertain what you are buying. The latest release of Black Hills 2012 Nota Bene is a good example of why you might want to read the back label. The 2012 blend is 57/35/8 merlot/cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc. It is the first time in more than a decade merlot has taken the lead in the blend. It explains the softer textures and rounder mouthfeel.
Consumers says taste descriptors help the most when purchasing wine so be sure to read that back label and look for any clues to what the style of the wine may be based on the verbiage. Among the plethora of words and sentences look for information about grapes: were they organically grown or perhaps employing biodynamic principles. What about the fermentation (in wood, or stainless steel, or concrete). How long is it aged, again in wood or tank, how much new wood is used? Is it better with seafood or steak, appetizers or dessert? These are all valuable clues as to what is inside the bottle. Famed Italian wine consultant Alberto Antonini is working with B.C.’s Haywire 2012 Pinot Gris Switchback Vineyard, Raised in Concrete. The wine is fermented in concrete eggs known to build texture and volume in the mouth and enhance minerality in wines.
All wine labels display an alcohol level that on its own isn’t that useful. You should know that studies have shown that most wineries under report the level of alcohol in their wines taking advantage of various regulations that permit up to a one degree difference in amounts reported. Wines with 13.5 percent alcohol and higher can often be characterized by slightly glossier textures and as having a slightly sweeter palate or at least the sensation of being smoother and softer and richer. The lower the level of alcohol the more refreshing and light the wine can be as in 8 percent Mosel riesling. At the other end of the scale a 15.5 percent Amador county zinfandel can overpower your palate quickly without food. The point is you can assess a wine or producer’s style by paying attention to the alcohol on the label as mention that is often understated by anywhere from .5 to 1 percent. American Paul Hobbs is known for working with ripe fruit and often his wines are rich in alcohol. His philosophy is everything in balance. So big fruit and big tannin can handle big acid and big alcohol as you will find in his Bramare 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon by Vina Cobos. Break out the steaks.
CORKS/SCREWCAPS HEAVY BOTTLES
It’s no longer easy to interpret a wines quality by the use of cork, thanks to the widespread use of screwcaps. On the other hand the old adage that screwcap wines are cheap no longer holds any weight. I take my cues from the wine. If it’s young, fresh and light in style be it red, white or rosé, a screwcap might signal an enlightened producers. Corks on expensive wines signal serious intentions but screwcaps on expensive wines means that producer is not afraid to make changes he or she thinks are good for the wine. Bottle weight is unfortunately still being used by too many producers to indicate “this is highly regarded wine.” Either way a ‘heavy’ bottle can be used as a signal that this is one of the producer’s best efforts or you may want to eschew the bottle for ignoring what is best for the environment. Light bottles on the other hand no longer mean cheap wine but more likely an environmentally conscious producer. Think back to the start of screwcaps, New Zealand, sauvignon blanc and an icon: Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand. A benevolent vintage yields a super fresh and tropical sauvignon blanc that needs a grilled piece of fish or cheese to tame its fairly overt acidity. Still a benchmark.
I feel as if I have only scratched the surface of suggesting how one might decipher a wine label. As you have read there is a mountain of information available on most every wine label. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover but you may be able to figure out what’s inside a bottle of wine by studying the label with just a bit more attention. As Holmes would say: It’s elementary my dear Watson, elementary.
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