I often hear the comment, “I’m confused when reading wine labels and wish they could be more easily understood.” Sound familiar? Have you had this experience?
First we must recognize that wine labels are governed by various laws and regulations both in the country of origin and the country where the wine is sold. All wines offered for sale in the U.S. — both domestic and import — are under the supervision of the TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau, formally the BATF), which also regulates label content and design.
Labels are often confusing because of the differences in the laws and traditions of various winemaking countries. In the Old World, the fundamental custom is to label a wine based on its appellation (e.g., Champagne, Bordeaux, Rioja) and producer name. In the New World (and particular areas of the Old World) tradition and marketing decisions have promoted the use of varietal names (e.g., cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot).
In the U.S., consumers more easily understand the varietal names because we’re accustomed to them. Yet some producers have elected to use proprietary names (e.g., Opus One, Insignia, Isosceles) as in the Old World style. While in the Old World, certain areas (e.g., Germany and parts of Italy, Spain and France) also use a varietal name and some like Piedmont use both (e.g., Barolo as an appellation and barbera as a varietal).
Confusing? You bet.
So let’s look at a few of the more easily understood components of the label. If a vintage date appears, at least 95 percent of the wine must come from that specific vintage. The label must contain alcohol percentage (abv), the producer’s name, area grown (appellation or AVA) and where the wine was bottled.
If the varietal name is used the wine must consist of at least 75 percent of the varietal — no need to mention the others unless by voluntary inclusion. But a wine carrying a proprietary name has no restriction on identifying the composition of the blend or the percentage of any varietal included on the label. If a specific vineyard designation is used (e.g., Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon), 95 percent of the fruit must come from that vineyard.
The appellation or AVA (American Viticultural Area as it is known in the U.S.) gets a little more technical. For a “general” AVA (e.g., California, Napa, Sonoma), 75 percent of the fruit must come from that AVA and for a “sub” AVA (e.g., Rutherford, Alexander Valley, Oakville), the number increases to 85 percent.
There are other restrictions for terms such as organic, organic wine, estate, estate grown, estate bottled. Yet there are no regulations on commonly seen terms such as reserve and old vines. Old World designations such as Cru, Grand Cru, Riserva, DOCG, Auslese and others are strictly regulated by the European producing countries and their growing areas but have no relevance when used for domestic wines.
Many in the industry and press are calling for a simplification in labeling for wines sold in the U.S., mostly geared to the universal adaptation of varietal names as opposed to the traditions of the Old World. But that’s unlikely to happen.
While some are suggesting simplification, others are calling for ingredient labeling as seen in food products. In addition to countless complications involved, this idea would lean toward making the label even more difficult to interpret as it would mandate naming all products used in the winemaking process such as filtering and fining agents that are no longer present in the finished wine.
Wine labels can be intimidating, and that’s unfortunate if they discourage the consumer from purchasing wine. Thankfully, U.S. laws are fairly straightforward, and the use of varietal labeling is well entrenched in the market, making interpretation easier for most. German wine labels win the prize for “least understood” and are seen by many as a primary reason for their ever-decreasing U.S. market share despite the high quality of the wines produced.
My Nov. 27 column, “Stepping back in time,” generated comments and questions about the wines poured and vintage differences.
Richard — I always thought vintages in California were pretty much alike and was surprised to see the differences you outlined.
Vintages in California are more consistent than those in Europe but there are definite differences we observe from year to year. And while great wines are made in lesser vintages, the superiority of a given year is often gauged by the dominance of great wines produced in that vintage and how they develop over time.