WSET® 2 Reading, Chapter 4: Understanding the Label (Class Notes)

The most prominent pieces of information on most wine labels are usually the brand or producer, the country or region, and/or the variety of grape used to make the wine. Where a variety is not named, very often it can be deducted from the region (many European regions specify which grape varieties can be used. For example, a wine from the Chablis appellation has to be made with Chardonnay). 

PRODUCERS AND BRANDS

The name of the producer and/or distributor will be found somewhere on the label. For some famous brands this will be the most important term. For other wines it will be hidden in the small print. Some brand names are created by or reflect the producer. These would include château or estate names, and large-scale brands such as Jacob’s Creek and E&J Gallo. Others are created by distributors or retailers. These include buyer’s-own-brands *BOBs), such as wines sold under the name of a supermarket.

Port, Sherry, and sparkling wine are dominated by a small number of large brands. For many consumers, the names of many grape varieties (Chardonnay, Shiraz…) and regions (Chablis, Sancerre…) act just like brands: they help the consumer make a decision by creating expectations of what a wine will be like. If those expectations are positive ones, and if the wines continue to meet the consumer’s expectations, then those words on the label will help sell the wine.

VINTAGE

A vintage is usually stated on the label. This is the year in which the grapes were harvested. Most wines are best consumed while they are young and fresh, and should not be aged. For these wines, the vintage acts as an indication of how old the wine is. For a few prestigious, age-worthy wines, vintages make a huge difference. For example, the price and quality of a 2009 wine from a good Bordeaux estate will be much higher than that of their 2007 wine. This is because 2009 was an outstanding year with almost perfect weather, whereas the 2007 was not and therefore the wines from this vintage are less complex and are unlikely to last as long.

Seasons in the northern and southern hemispheres are inverted and relative to each other. Wines from a given vintage are made from grapes harvested in February, March, or April (southern hemisphere) and August, September, or October (northern hemisphere). As a result, wines from the southern hemisphere will be half a year older than northern hemisphere wines from the same vintage. This can make a difference for wines that are made to be consumed as young and fresh as possible, such as rosés and fruity unoaked whites.

GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATIONS

Geographical indications (GI) are common to all wine regions and are a common feature on wine labels. This is because the area where grapes are grown has a defining influence on the style, quality, and flavour of the wine. A GI is a designated vineyard area within a country. These areas can be very large and cover an entire region (e.g. Bordeaux) or they can be very small and can be no more than a single vineyard. Understandably, the use of geographical indications is tightly controlled to ensure that the consumer gets what they are paying for and that the wine is made from the grapes grown in the location stated on the label. The rules and regulations are very complex but throughout the world, wine can be divided into two categories:

  • Wines with a GI
  • Wines without a GI.

European Union

The European Union (EU) wines with a geographical indication (GI) are divided into two quality categories: wines with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and wines with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Although these are label terms that rarely appear on the label. Instead, producers use long-established traditional labelling terms, such as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in France. Broadly speaking, PDOs are smaller areas with more tightly defined regulations, whereas PGIs are larger with fewer regulations.

Importantly, these GIs not only define the geographical area of a region but also specify permitted vinegrowing and winemaking techniques and grape varieties. Therefore, in theory, each PDO has a unique flavour that cannot be copied by any other wine because the wine must be made according to the laws that specify: the limits of the area, the permitted vinegrowing and winemaking techniques, and the permitted grape varieties. PDO wines rarely state the grape variety on the label. This can mean that some of the finest expressions of Chardonnay, for example, come in bottles labeled Chablis AC or Meursault AC.

Because the laws for producing PDOs are restrictive, some producers prefer to make wines in the PGI category because it allows the use of non-traditional varieties in the blend (e.g. Chardonnay in the south of France). These produce large quantities of inexpensive wines from international grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. The variety or blend is usually stated on the label. Where no varieties are mentioned, the wine is more likely to be made from lesser-known, local wine varieties.

Wine without a GI is the category that offers the most flexibility in production rules. For example, it allows brand owners to source grapes from vineyards throughout a country.

France — In France, the traditional labelling term for PDO is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC or AOC). The traditional labelling term for PDI wines is Vin de Pays (VdP). However, some of these regions (in particular, the Pays d’Oc) prefer not to use VdP and choose instead to use the French term for PDI, Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP). Wines without a geographical indication are labelled as Vin de France.

Italy — In Italy, there are two traditional labelling terms that are used instead of PDO. The most important, used by only a select number of regions, is Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). The other is Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC). The Italian labelling term for PGI is traditionally referred to as Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT). This is equivalent to the French Vin de Pays.Some IGTs are vast and widely used (e.g. IGT Sicilia) and others are seldom seen.

Spain — Spain has several traditional labelling terms for PDO, Two are more widely used than the rest. The most prestigious, used only by two regions, is Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa). The other is Denominación de Origen (DO). The traditional Spanish term for PGI is Vino de la Tierra (VdIT).

Germany — Germany also has two traditional labelling terms that they use instead of PDO: Qualitätswein and Prädikatswein. However, unlike Spain or Italy, these labelling terms are not used to denote a quality hierarchy. Wines that are labelled under these categories must be produced within one of Germany’s 13 designated wine regions. However, wines labelled Prädikatswein are subdivided into six sub-categories that are defined by the sugar level of the grapes at harvest. The traditional labelling term for PGI in Germany is Landwein, although the PGI category is not as widely used in Germany as it is in France, Italy, and Spain.

New World

Nearly all non-EU wines in the international market fall into the category of ‘Wines with a GI’. Each country has developed its own way of dividing its GI vineyard areas (whether it be by political boundaries or other specific areas, such as regions, zones, districts, and so on), and each control the use of their names. However, unlike in the EU, these legal categories are rarely seen on the label.

LEGALLY DEFINED QUALITY INDICATIONS

As well as PDOs and PDOs, most EU countries have other labelling terms that indicate quality defined in their wine laws.

France — In France, most appellations are sub-divided into a quality hierarchy, with the most prestigious covering the smallest areas and having the strictest regulations. Many different labelling terms are used to indicate these hierarchies, including Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru. Each of the major wine regions in France use these terms slightly differently.

Italy — In Italy, there are two important labelling terms that appear on many Italian wine labels: Classico and Riserva.

Spain — The wine laws in Spain define specific ageing criteria for Spanish wines. Each category is defined by the minimum length of time the wine must be aged, both in barrel and in bottle, before it can be released for sale. Because these vary from one region to another, they are often exceeded by producers. This period of ageing can have a significant impact on the style and quality of a wine. In order of increasing minimum age, they are: Joven, Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva.

Germany — Within the Prädikatswein category, there is a hierarchy of designations that is defined by the sugar level content of the grapes at the time of harvest. These are divided into six sub-categories. In order of minimum sugar level, from lowest to highest, they are: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, BA (Beerenauslese), Eiswein and TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese). These categories can apply to all grape varieties, though the best examples are made with Riesling.

A common misconception is that whereas EU wine production is closely regulated, in other countries producers are free to do what they like. It is true that outside PDO wine production, producers have more freedom to experiment with vinegrowing and winemaking techniques such as irrigation and oak chips, and have more choice over which varieties to plant and where to grow them. However, all countries have their own legislation covering production techniques and use of labelling terms to prevent consumers from being misinformed or, worse, harming their health. In addition, any wine that is imported into the EU has to satisfy EU laws covering wine-production techniques.

STYLE AND PRODUCTION TECHNIQUES

Apart from the variety, the region, and the brand, the most common terms found on wine labels are indications of style or production techniques. Those in English, such as ‘hand-harvested’, ‘unoaked’, or ‘estate-bottled’ are often self-explanatory. But some may need a little further clarification. For wine produced in countries where English is not the first language, many common labelling terms are simply translations of words such as ‘red wine’, ‘medium-dry’, and so on. A table of these common terms can be found below.

Barrel/barrique-fermented (white wines only) — Fermenting the wine in oak gives a better integration of oak flavours in the wine, but it is more labour-intensive than simply ageing in oak, and therefore more expensive.

Barrel/barrique-aged — Many wines are aged in oak barrels or barrique prior to bottling. New oak barrels give a wine more oak flavours than used ones do. Therefore, if the label states that the barrels are ‘new’ the wine will have a pronounced oak flavour.

Oaked — This indicates that the wine has been in contact with oak. This could be through ageing in oak vessels (of any size, new or old) during the maturation process. Alternatively, it could indicate the use of oak staves or chips. These last techniques would not be used for any premium-quality wines.

Unfined/Unfiltered — Most wines are treated before bottling to remove anything that may cause haziness. Some argue that one side effect of fining and/or filtration is that too much of the character of the wine is stripped away, so a few producers prefer to minimise or avoid clarifying their wines before bottling. They may indicate this by stating on the label that the wines are unfined and/or unfiltered. These wines are more likely to form deposits in the bottle as they age, and are less likely to be perfectly clear and bright in the glass.

Botrytis cinerea/Noble rot — Botrytis is a fungus, or mould, that attacks grape berries. If it attacks healthy, ripe grapes it causes desirable noble rot used in the production of sweet wines. In other certain circumstances however, it will form unwanted grey rot. Some producers will choose not to use the term cinerea on the label.

Organic — Wine made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides are called ‘organic.’ Biodynamics is a system of organic grape growing and winemaking that links vineyard and winemaking activities to the positions of the moons, planets, and stars.

Cuvée — This is a common labelling term widely used to indicate a specific blend or selection. It could be a blend of different varieties, regions, vintages, or even  of different barrels or vats from the same estate or vineyard. It is often accompanied with a particular name. Producers often use this term to identify the better wines in their ranges. However, there are no legal controls on this term and therefore it cannot be taken as an indication of quality.

Old vines/Vieilles vignes — Old vines, or in French vieilles vignes, typically give lower yields of higher quality grapes. This is not a legally defined term and as a result there can be some controversy over the use of this term.

An Estate (Château, Domaine) only uses grapes it has grown on its own land. A Merchant, or Négociant, blends together wines and/or grapes bought in from winemakers and grape farmers. The word ‘Merchant’, or ‘Négociant’ seldom appears on the bottle, but most medium and large-volume brands follow this model. A co-operative cellar (cave coopérative, cantina sociale) is a winemaking facility whose ownership is shared by a number of grape farmers.

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