How to Read a Wine Label

Staff Writer
What those labels on the back of the bottle really mean

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

If you’re like us, the first thing you do when you’re thinking about buying a wine is turn the bottle over and read the back label. There’s often some good intel there.

But watch out. At least sometimes, there’s also a lot of hype.

Over the last three months, we reviewed the back labels of 100 wines. Here are the "camps" that back labels fall into:

1. Back Labels That Are Front Labels
Many back labels are actually, from a governmental standpoint, the front label. These can be technically informative (percentages of grapes, etc.) and needless to say, it’s pretty amusing that legally, the back is often the front.

2. Silence Is Not Golden
Some back labels say virtually nothing other than the legally mandated "…don’t operate heavy machinery, etc." This can be a bummer. Wines that are often ripe for explanation are silent.

3. The Informative Label
Really helpful back labels are often fascinating and/or helpful, albeit sometimes in a geeky way. The vineyards is at 4,000 feet…(cool). The wine is great with sushi (OK, we’ll be the judge).

4. The Technical Label
"The malolactic fermentation took place in barrels on April 3." OK, thanks.

5. The Food Label
"Eat with seaweed-crusted hamachi on a bed of bitter greens." OK, thanks again. But "Eat with pasta or meat" isn’t all that helpful either.

6. The Story Label
We like these labels. They tell the story of the people and place behind the wines and often provide an insight into the philosophy of the winery.

7. The Marketing-Speak Label
There’s probably a Consumer Products marketing graduate behind these. They tell a fascinating and appealing story… except it has absolutely nothing to do with the grapes, place, or wine inside. These sorts of labels are misleading… and proliferating.

In the end, identifying which type of back label is which is not easy. So we advise: consumer beware. Looks and labels can be deceiving. Tasting is the only true way to know.

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