Wine Labels 101

This Friday, September 8, is International Literacy Day, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to read wine labels.

But as you stand in front of that wall of bottles at the wine store, do you really know what you’re looking at? Wine labels can be a mystery, even to longtime lovers of the grape, because there’s no consistency. Labeling laws across the globe are all over the place (pun intended) and impossibly complex.

Wine labelsHere’s all you really need to remember: anyone who’s literate can understand enough to know what they’re buying. You just need to identify whether the label is telling you the name of the grape, the winery, the wine region, or a combination of the three.

Take the above photo. The wine on the left is made from Dolcetto (dol-chét-toh) grapes. The name translates, by the way, to “little sweet one,” but all the Dolcetto I’ve tried is big, bold and dry. “D’Alba” means it was produced in or near Alba, a town in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. (Any version of d’, di, de or a on a label means “of,” so even if it’s an unfamiliar word, you’ll know they’re talking about a place, not a grape.) The winery is Abbazia, shown at the top of the label. So if you’re familiar with Piedmont and specifically Dolcetto, you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle.

The wine next to it was made by those flashy Ferrari winemakers in the Trentino region of northern Italy – as you can see by their name emblazoned across the gold label. The grape is Perlé, a white grape often grown in Italy, and Trentodoc is essentially the designation for sparkling wines made in Trentino. This bottle also tells you the vintage, 2007, on the front; the Dolcetto’s vintage (2015) is on the back label.

Winemakers often list a vintage (the year the grapes were harvested), or you might see the initials “NV” – non-vintage, a recent BigSexyReds Wine Lingo – meaning the winemaker blended wines from several vintages to get the taste and quality level he or she wanted. A 2016 vintage wine could taste dramatically different from a 2014 or 2015, even if the grapes were picked in the same vineyard.

Sometimes the producers only tell you the region, and they expect you to know what that means: Champagne, for instance, is a region in France. If the label says Champagne, that’s where it’s from; the wine will almost always be a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with smaller amounts of other grapes, including Pinot Blanc, permitted in the mix. (There is a “Champagne grape,” but it’s not used for making Champagne. Confused yet?) A bottle labeled Burgundy (or Bourgogne), Beaujolais, Chianti or Bordeaux likewise is telling you the region, not the grapes that go into the wine. (**Next week we’ll talk more about those place-name labels, so if you pick up a Chianti you’ll know what to expect in your glass.)

Usually, too, the label will display, sometimes in the tiniest font possible, the alcohol content – ABV, or “alcohol by volume.” Most wines range from about 12 percent ABV to 15 percent, but you can find them lighter or boozier – and you will get more of a buzz from a 15-percent Zin than a 12-percent Pinot Noir.

Some labels list tasting notes on the back. I wouldn’t take those too seriously; just because the winery’s PR people think you should taste cinnamon and plums doesn’t mean you won’t taste black pepper and pecans. Everyone’s palate is different. But you might find hints at why the wine you selected is pricier than others: a label that refers to “low yields on our sun-kissed slopes,” for instance, tells you that the grapes were picked by hand (because tractors don’t work so well on steep hills), so labor costs were higher than if they’d been picked by machine, and the clusters were culled for maximum nutrition and sun exposure.

And don’t even think about learning sugar levels. Sometimes those percentages appear on the label, sometimes not. When you’re not sure if a wine is dry or sweet, ask the wine steward.

Nothing on the label, of course, can guarantee that you’ll like the wine. But with a few essentials you’ll at least be better informed about it.

Wine Lingo of the Day: One of the most headache-inducing wine label words is Montepulciano. You just need to memorize the difference between Montepulciano  d’Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When you see Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, it means Montepulciano is the grape, and the wine was produced in Abruzzo, in eastern-central Italy. Or, you might buy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This wine comes from the village of Montepulciano, and it’s made with Sangiovese grapes. They don’t make wine from Montepulciano grapes in Montepulciano. But don’t stress about it; they’re both delicious Big Sexy Reds.

Vino ‘View:  We had a chance to taste this Piovene Porto Godi Merlot 2015 (14.5 percent alcohol; $25) and it was unlike any Merlot we’ve tasted in years. It was powerful – well, just look at that ABV – and more intense than most Merlot. Produced from three 

Piovene Merlot

Merlot clones, this dark-purple wine spent more than a year in French oak barrels, and  you can taste the oak, along with black cherries and some smoke. And it’s a great bottle for practicing your label-literacy skills: Piovene is the family name and Piovene Porto Godi is the brand. “Frá i Broli” describes the special Merlot medley (“frá” means “among”). The back label adds more information; the winery is in Colli (“hills”) di Berici, a district in the heart of Veneto, near Toara (meaning, “good earth”) di Villaga – the name of the town.

My best label-translating advice: keep your phone handy in the wine store, set to Google.

Happy reading!

Mary

[Piovene Porto Godi was submitted to BigSexyReds.com for review.]
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Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary

Grappa – Your New (Very Old) Brandy

When I started learning about wine and spirits, I was told grappa was more or less the garbage of the liquor world. There is a sliver of truth in that bias; after all, it’s distilled from pomace – seeds, stalks, skins and pulp, the parts of the grape most winemakers throw away.

But there the similarity ends. I tasted some fine grappa last week as part of the American delegation touring wineries in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. (I won’t rub it in too much about the Italy thing,  but I’ll share more about it in the coming weeks.)  For my money, discovering grappa was a highlight of the trip.

IMG_0541[Jamie Stewart, brand manager of Cantine Ferrari Trento, with a few of the winery’s 19th-century gadgets.]

Typically a digestivo, or after-dinner drink (because it’s believed to be good for digestion), grappa is today’s spirits trend, made by more than 100 producers and selling about 40 million bottles a year, though it’s been produced since the Middle Ages. Back then it was an easy, cheap way for farmers and vineyard workers to warm up.

Some classify grappa as an eau-de-vie – and in France, brandy distilled from grape pomace is called eau-de-vie de marc (pronounced “mar”). Other sources say eau-de-vie refers to brandy made from raw materials other than grapes.

Some producers distill their grappa in pot stills or column stills, but others use steam distillation, believing a direct flame could burn the pomace. The drink can be produced from one grape variety or a blend; single-variety grappa (at least 85 percent one variety) is sometimes called monovitigno. And it comes with requirements: fermentation and distillation must happen on the pomace with no added water. The stems in pomace can create small quantities of toxic methanol that must be removed, so Italian law prohibits grappa from being produced in a winery – distillation must take place in a separate facility. And in the EU (European Union), it can only be labeled “grappa” if it’s produced in Italy or San Marino, a tiny republic surrounded by the mountains of north-central Italy. But craft distillers in the US, who aren’t restricted by those labeling laws, are starting to produce some fine artisanal pomace brandies and labeling them as grappa.

The grappa I sampled, reviewed below, was produced by the Ferrari group (no relation to the car, though their wines are just as elegant) in Trentodoc, the cartel of sparkling wine producers in Trentino. You’ll notice it’s caramel-colored. When grappa is stored in glass or other “inactive” materials before bottling, it’s a clear spirit like vodka. Aging it in wooden casks gives it color; if it’s called Vecchia or Invecchiata it was aged for at least 12 months in wood. Grappa labeled Riserva or Stravecchia aged in wood for at least 18 months. My grappa underwent a fractional aging/blending process called a solera system.

Sip your grappa slowly, from a small glass – it can be potent stuff. And look at the alcohol content on the label before you buy; mine is a smooth 84 proof but you can find it lighter – or as raw as throat-scarring 120 proof.

IMG_0543Vino ‘View:  Grappa Segnana Solera Selezione (42 percent alc., about $40 US) After I was treated to a taste of this sublime spirit I couldn’t pull out my wallet fast enough; I had to take a bottle home. Made of 60 percent Pinot Nero and 40 percent Chardonnay, it blends five vintages in a solera process: some brandy from the oldest French oak barrels is bottled, then brandy from each vintage’s barrels tops off the next oldest, and the progressive blending continues each year. The barrels impart a roasted, vanilla, smoky flavor mixed with dark fruit and a long, fruity finish. Don’t look for Grappa Segnana on store shelves in the US; you’ll have to order it online. Google for the best price.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Caffé Coretto (“corrected coffee”) = What you’ll drink if you add a shot of grappa to espresso. Or make it Resentin (“little rinser”) – drink your espresso first, then down a shot of grappa from the same cup.

Ciao!

Mary