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.
Here’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
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.