Wine Labels – What They Do or Don’t Tell You
A recent article in Wine Enthusiast magazine caught my attention and prompted this Carl’s Corner edition. One of my favorite wine writers, Paul Gregutt, wrote about The Dos and Don’ts of Wine Labels with a focus on what makes a good wine label. I have borrowed liberally from his article with the focus on what is required on a wine label, what would be useful to consumers, and what wineries rarely tell us. So, pour yourself a glass of good Texas wine and grab a few wine bottles to look over their labels as you read further.
One thing that Paul Gregutt focused on was the design quality of a label, a key to catching a customer’s attention in a retail setting. I’ll not discuss this issue other than to say that there are good and bad label designs out there, but labels seem to have less impact from a tasting room standpoint than in a retail setting.
Labels must gain approval from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) before application to a wine bottle for sale. One important requirement is some info on what type of wine is contained in the bottle. This can be a grape variety, like Roussanne or Tempranillo, to indicate that at least 75% of the fruit used to produce that wine was the listed variety. This is the minimum requirement by U.S. law, unless further restricted via state law. Currently, Texas abides by the 75% rule. Noting what the rest of the wine is made from is not required, but can be useful to consumers when a winery sees fit to include that information. For blended wines, particularly those with proprietary names, like Lily, Holiday, or Buffalo Roam, only if the label contains info on the blend can the consumer know the varieties, and their ratio, included the wine.
Another gap in label info arises with rose’ wines. Again, the grape variety(ies) may not be clearly noted, but neither may be the method of production. Blending red wine with white to make pink wine is certainly allowed, and produces what is technically a blush wine. Allowing crushed grapes to sit for some period before pressing off the juice from the skins can produce some lovely colored rose’ wines. If the red grapes are directly pressed with minimal skin contact, a lightly colored (soft salmon hue) rose’ is usually the result. Another method, called saignée, involves bleeding off some juice from crushed red grapes before fermentation to get reddish-orange juice for a rose’ and increasing the skin-to-juice ratio for the remainder to produce a bolder, darker red wine. Knowing how a rose’ wine was made can be helpful to a consumer in selecting a style suited to his/her palate.
Even though alcohol level is required on a label (% ABV, alcohol by volume), the range allowed is plus/minus 1.5%. Thus, if the label claims 13% ABV, the allowed range is 11.5% to 14.5%. There is quite a difference on the palate from the low (soft, easy) to high (hot, strong) end of that range.
There is no requirement to include the level of sweetness, or residual sugar (RS), but this is helpful label info. Wines with 0.0-0.5% RS are considered dry, with little or no perception of sweetness. Wines with over 1.0% RS are considered on the sweet side, and can range from just pleasantly sweet to very syrupy sweet at higher RS levels. The range between 0.5-1.0% RS is interesting in that only about 50% of folks can detect sweetness, but there is definitely a softening of the wine and a richer mouthfeel provided by the sugar content.
Label info indicating grape origin has always been important to me. The label can say Texas, indicating that at least 75% of the fruit came from the Lone Star state. More specific descriptors, like an American Viticultural Area (AVA), think Texas High Plains or Texas Hill Country, a county, a vineyard, or even a block within a vineyard tells a consumer much more about the origin of the grapes. If a label does not specify Texas or some location within the state, it is likely the fruit was purchased from outside of Texas (CA, WA, etc.).
The term “reserve” on a label really has no legal definition in the U.S. (except for one or two specific regions, not in Texas). Thus, a winery can designate a reserve wine for any number of reasons. Selecting between different batches of fruit, different barrels of wine, allowing portions of a wine to age longer, having barrel or wood contact vs stainless steel only, can all be reasons to designate a reserve wine. The expectation is that any selection criteria used for a reserve wine will produce higher quality than a non-designated version of that wine. What we as consumers hope is that a winery does not label a wine reserve simply to increase the price, and therefore profit.
Paul Gregutt points out a number of common wine label words and phrases that really have little or no meaning, and on these I agree. Terms like handcrafted, noble grapes, bold, finest, world-class, award-winning, etc., are not very useful. Do you think a winery would advertise their wine to be the opposite of any of these?
A final note on labels involves those amazing aroma and flavor descriptors that sometimes seem from a foreign language. It may take some time and a bit of study to appreciate what some of these descriptors mean to your palate, but that can be very helpful in determining whether or not you will appreciate and enjoy a particular wine.
Paul Gregutt, The Dos and Don’ts of Wine Labels, Wine Enthusiast magazine, 12-Nov-2019