WINE SAVVY: A short guide to the most common terms on a bottle

Posted by on April 13, 2016

David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 4/13/2016:

A short guide to the most common terms on a bottle

If all wines or grape varieties tasted the same, selecting a chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon for dinner would be like buying a head of broccoli. But wine is the most nuanced beverage in the world. Each bottle is different based on everything from where the grapes are grown to how long the wine sat in the bottle before tasting.

So there you stand holding a grocery list with the words “red wine” scribbled at the bottom. In front of you is a wall of bottles filled with wine and nothing to help you choose except the price and a small label with an impossibly small font.

Get out your reading glasses because if you want to make an educated guess, you are going to have to understand the words and terms on the label. Here is a short guide to the most common terms displayed on a bottle of wine from the United States.

• The largest words are often the name of the producer. If you are familiar with a producer and you like their wine, then knowing their name will help buy that brand. But if you don’t know the producer, then their brand name is not indicative of quality, taste or value.

• The next largest word is usually the grape variety. By law, if the wine contains 75 percent or more of a single variety, then that variety can be listed on the label. Most wines are blends. While the label may say “cabernet sauvignon,” it is very rare to find a wine that is 100 percent cabernet. Often, merlot is used along with malbec, syrah and others to create the best tasting product. If the bottle reads “red blend,” the primary grape is less than 75 percent. “Meritage” and “claret” sound fancier, but they mean the same thing — red blend.

• Where the wine is from is the best indication of quality. I don’t mean California wines are better than Oregon wines. I mean if the label lists a specific location where the grapes were grown, then the flavors and nuances of that wine will be greatly increased. Grapes sourced from just one specific area will translate the flavor of that area much better than a blend from many different regions.

The U.S. is divided up into AVAs (American Viticultural Regions). When a wine label lists an AVA on the label, 75 percent of the wine must come from that region. If it lists only a state such as California, 100 percent must come from California. Confusingly, every state has a slightly different rule with the top wine producing states being the most strict and those that produce less being the most lenient. Minnesota requires 51 percent of the wine in a bottle to be from grapes produced in Minnesota.

• The vintage date is good to note because not all wines are intended to age. A wine in the sales basket might be a great deal because it’s old, and old isn’t always good. Generally, if you see it for sale, you can drink it right now. I’d steer clear of buying an old dusty bottle for full price that’s been displayed upright on the shelf in a warm store for 10 years. That wine is probably more vinegar than wine.

Other words on the bottle are “reserve” — which means it may be special but doesn’t have to be — and “estate bottled” — which is a legal term meaning 100 percent of the wine is from land the winery owns or controls. Having the same people grow, harvest, ferment, age, bottle and sell their own product often leads to a better wine.

Wine labels are works of art but also important tools for consumers. They contain information that can inform if you know how to interpret the words. Don’t buy a wine just because you like the label, buy it because you know what the label means.

David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at david@savvynomad.com.

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