Wine labels – Peeling off the mystery

One of the most baffling subjects that confronts the budding wine enthusiast is the deciphering of the myriad of information contained on the bottle label, especially that contained on wine bottles from European countries. Once the basic rules are taken on board it becomes a lot simpler. Whereas most New World countries put details of the grape varieties on the front label, man European regions do not. Since this is the most basic of information for taste purposes, why is this the case?

European winemakers tend to put more emphasis on the place of origin. For instance, a Bordeaux typically wont say ‘Cabernet’ on the label, instead the name of the chateau where it originates. They also include the part of Bordeaux where it was made, such as Haut-Medoc. Similarly a Sancerre is totally Sauvignon Blanc, but in depth analysis of the label will leave you none the wiser. For the French the important factor is that the wine comes from Sancerre in the Loire valley. For them it is inbred knowledge that white Sancerre is Sauvignon Blanc.

Moving south to Spain

Red Rioja declares itself as Rioja on the label, not Tempranillo the grape variety used. In Italy most Tuscan reds have no information on the Sangiovese grape, widely used in these wines. Given this confusion it is no wonder that many of us head for that bottle with the label announcing it is a Chardonnay Viognier from the Ironstone Vineyard of California.

Europeans believe the most important factor in wine is the soil, climate and culture where the grape is grown. This is particularly important to single-vineyard wines who capture the essence of a particular area of land. So whereas a French winemaker will see his wine as reflecting the character of a particular region, a New World winemaker mad about grape varieties will consider that soil is just the growing medium in which the fruit grows, and that the grape variety and hard work in the winery are what really counts. Today these two opposing approaches to wine labelling are moving closer together with New World producers emphasising their regionality and its characteristics, whilst European, even the parochial French winemakers possibly prompted by the wholesalers and the supermarkets are labelling their wines more clearly.


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