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How to read a wine by its label

Wine may be a simple pleasure, but it’s a complicated subject. And sometimes just getting to the point where you can enjoy a bottle of the stuff- just picking out and purchasing the kind of wine you have in mind-can be downright agonizing. One common instrument of wine tor-ture is the restaurant wine list; another, which the first reflects, is the wine label. Restaurant wine lists can be hard to handle because they’re mostly written in what are, after all, foreign languages (even “Chardon-nay” is a French word), and because the sheer volume of choice seems staggering. Choosing from over 150 different wines from 15 regions in half a dozen countries gets confusing when all you wanted in the first place was something white, dry, and not too expensive to go with your filet of sole.

But wine labels give you six basic pieces of information -the first five of which are the most important and are almost the only things you really need to know about a wine. If you can recognize these items, and figure out what they mean, then you’ll find your next visit to the wine shop a good deal less painful. Better yet, that restaurant wine list won’t look quite so awesome anymore, since a wine list (a good one, at any rate) gives you a stripped-down version of the information a label contains. The wine label basics, then, are:

– The name of the wine. This might bea region or a wine type (Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Pouilly-Fuissé, Soave), an estate orproperty (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Do-maine Ott), a grape variety (CabernetSauvignon, Nebbiolo), or a made-up orproprietary name (Paul Masson’s EmeraldDry, Rothschild’s Mouton-Cadet).

– The brand name. This is the name ofthe winery or wine shipper. Gallo from California, for instance; Moet-Chandonfrom France; Bolla from Italy; Deinhardfrom Germany. Sometimes the brandname and the name of the wine are thesame. Without getting into official corporate names, for instance, it is enough tosay that Chateau Latour is made by Chateau Latour. Sometimes the brand name ismade up, as with private labelings done for restaurants or large wine shops.

– The relationship between brand name and wine name. Did the producers whose name is on the label actually make the wine (and, if so, was it from their own grapes), or did they merely age the wine or even just buy it when it was fit for sale and slap their label on it? Wines marked “Estate-Bottled”-i.e., the grapes came from the winery’s own vineyards – are almost always superior to the non-estate-bottled variety (though there are some exceptions in California), because the winemakers have been able to work closely with viticul-turists to obtain the kinds of grapes they want. (Another term for estate-bottled is “Grown and Bottled by ….”) American wine labeling laws get a little complicated in this area, but for all practical purposes, the words “Produced and Bottled by…” mean that the firm made the wine from somebody else’s grapes. Despite the fact that it sounds synonymous, on the other hand, the phrase “Made and Bottled by …” doesn’t mean the same thing at all; it means that the firm bought finished wine from another producer, then aged and bottled it – the same thing indicated by the words “Cellared and Bottled by …” and several variations on the theme. On French labels, “Mis (or “Mise”) en bouteilles au chateau” or “… au domaine” or “… a la propriété” means estate-bottled. When the same phrase ends “… dans nos chais” or “… dans nos caves,” the firm bought grapes and possibly finished wine from other producers. The German term for estate-bottled is “Erzeugerabfüllung,” though wines bottled there before 1971 might express it as “Originalabfüllung” or “Original-Kellerabfüllung.” In Italian, estate-bottled is “Imbottigliato (or “Messo in Bottiglia”) nel’Origine” (or “del Produt-tore all’Origine”).

– Where the wine is from. This will indicate the country and/or state first, then the specific region, at least for better wines -not just France but Bordeaux, and not just Bordeaux but St. Julien; not just California, but the Napa Valley. The origin of the best French wines is guaranteed by the “Appellation Controlée” system, and these words appear on many French labels (sometimes with another word inserted, like “Appellation Bourgogne Controlée” – controlled Burgundy appellation). The AC, in fact, not only guarantees place of origin, but also specifies permissible grape varieties and maximum yields, and often wine-making practices as well. The second level of French wines, with similar guarantees, is marked “VDQS,” for “Vin Dé-limité de Qualité Supérieure.” These are generally the best “country wines” of France, and are often good bargains. The heart of the Italian appellation system is the “DOC,” for “Denominazione di Orig-ine Controllata,” which makes similar guarantees to the French system. While it is unlikely that there are any really good French wines with neither an AC nor a VDQS, there are plenty of fine Italian vintages without a DOC-if the winemaker uses nontraditional grapes or winemaking methods, for instance, or if the government doesn’t think a regional style has yet been sufficiently developed. (Don’t turn down an Italian wine just because it doesn’t have a DOC, in other words.) Sometimes, a wine label also specifies the name of the vineyard from which the grapes came. This can get confusing: Some California wineries (like Chateau St. Jean) make six or eight varieties of Char-donnay annually-each labeled with a different vineyard name; other California wineries share vineyards, so that the same designation might be linked to two or more brand names; and it is the rule rather than the exception in Burgundy for bits of one small vineyard to be owned by many different proprietors.

– The vintage year. There are lots of good nonvintage wines, of course. These are blends of two or more vintages, and they’re often high-quality, well-balanced wines, sometimes with hints of the dignity that is conferred on wine by age. But when a bottle bears a vintage year, it demands close attention. On the other hand, it is worth remembering (as the dean of 20th-century wine writers, André Simon, was fond of saying) that there are no great vintages, only great bottles -i.e., that there are substandard wines made in the finest vintages and very good ones made in the poorest.

– The alcoholic content. This is a matter of great concern in Europe, where high-alcohol wines are generally more expensive and sought-after than low-alcohol ones. It’s much less of a concern in the U.S., though. In my experience, at least, Americans rarely notice the alcoholic content of a table wine (except for maybe after they’ve drunk it, when it’s too late); and American laws permit a variation of up to 1.5 per cent in either direction from the stated strength -a wine marked 13 per cent, for instance, might be as low as 11.5 per cent or as high as 14.5 per cent.

To help you use these basics, I’ll offer,in closing, four suggestions:1) Keeplearning about wine; being able to readlabels won’t help if you don’t know whatyou’re reading. 2) Really read the label.Intentionally or not, wine labels can be deceiving. 3) Remember what you like andnotice similarities on labels. This not onlylets you try the same wine in different vintages or lot numbers or whatever, buthelps you expand your wine experience bytrying other similar wines. 4) Have fun;that’s the whole point of this thing,anyway, and learning about wine labels orabout wine itself shouldn’t seem like achore. Relax and drink it all in – the labeland the wine.

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