What’s in a label?

When you pick up a bottle of wine and look at the label, have you ever wondered exactly what you’re reading means? Wine labels are a delicate balance between marketing and legality. The winery wants the label to look enticing and appropriately convey what’s in the bottle, and the government wants to make sure that the facts are stated accurately. In the example above, there are 7 pieces of information shown. Here’s how they break down:

  1. Brand identification: This is generally the winery name. Any name is acceptable, as long is it’s not misleading about the age, origin, or characteristics of the wine.
  2. Varietal: What type of wine is in the bottle. It can be as broad as Red Table Wine, or as specific as Pinot Noir. If a specific varietal is shown, that must be the predominate type of grape used in the wine—at least 75%.
  3. Vineyard of Origin: Wineries sometimes display the vineyard where the grapes are from, especially if it’s a unique or special spot. If they do list a vineyard, the wine must be 95% from grapes grown in the vineyard named.
  4. Estate Bottled: When you see Estate Bottled on a label, it means that 100% of the wine came from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, which must be located in a viticultural area. The winery must crush and ferment the grapes, finish, age, process and bottle the wine on their premises
  5. Appellation: An appellation is the state, county or region where the grapes were grown. If a wine is labeled with the vintage year, the appellation is required. If the area is California, 100% of the grapes must be from there; if a specific American Viticultural Area (AVA) is listed, 85% of the grapes must come from within the named region; if a county, 75% of the wine is produced from grapes grown in that county.
  6. Vintage: Believe it or not, vintage is not required on a label. However, if it is included, in the U.S. it means that 95% or more must be harvested in that year. As mentioned above, if a vintage is included, then the appellation of origin, smaller than a country, must also be shown.
  7. Alcohol Content: This is the percentage of alcohol by volume. Most labels include this, although if a wine is between 7% and 14% alcohol, it can legally just say “Table Wine” or “Light Wine.” If the alcohol is under 14%, the number stated on the label can differ as much as 1.5% from reality (but it can’t be over 14%); if the wine is labeled over 14%, a 1% variance is allowed.

Other information is usually found on the back label:

  1.  Location where bottled: Not necessarily the same place as where the grapes were grown (with the exception of wines marked Estate Bottled, as mentioned above), this is the place you see mentioned after “Produced and Bottled by”. This is where the winery is located, or where the winery that bottled the wine is located.  Some wineries use custom crush facilities and this will be the location printed on the label.
  2.  Net Volume: The net contents of the wine is stated in the metric system of measure and is the amount of wine in the bottle; some common sizes for wines are 1.5L (a magnum), 750ml, and 375ml (half bottle). You’ll often find this molded into the glass rather than printed on the label.
  3. Those Government Warnings: In addition to stating that the wine contains sulfites (if it does in fact have more than 10 parts per million sulfur dioxide), labels must also include the government health warnings that women should not drink during pregnancy and that consumption impairs your ability to drive a car, operate machinery, and may cause health problems.
  4. Descriptive Marketing Copy: Most wineries like to include some information about how the wine was made or tastes on the back label. Any copy is allowed, as long as it’s not inaccurate, offensive, or misleading.