Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Ever had that feeling when you’re in the wine aisle — or even buying wine online — with hundreds of bottles staring back at you, and you’re rendered completely powerless to choose? Should you get a South African wine, or something else? You pick one to look at — and you know what you want — but you can’t even begin to make sense of what’s written on the label? Flustered, you grab something that looks familiar and turn-tail to the checkout.
We know the feeling. That’s why we’ve put together our top tips for reading wine labels, so that next time you’re on the hunt for something new, you’ll know where to start.
1. Don’t just go for appearances
Of course, you’ll naturally gravitate towards label designs that suit your aesthetic tastes. And designers do indeed try to express the qualities of the wine through the label. But don’t be fooled into making final choices on appearances alone! It’s much more important to focus on the grape-growing region, alcohol content and flavour profile. The good news? The only way to find out your preferences is by drinking more wine!
2. Know your old-world wines from your new-world wines
Old-world wines are made in Europe. They tend to have labels that focus on the appellation qualification, which is the proof that the wine meets the standards for a certain region to be placed on the label. Such standards can include the grape varieties and methods used. For an old-world wine, the label would typically say the name of the region, the producer, the winery and the classification, such as A.O.C. or D.O.C.
New-world wines tend to be made outside of Europe — think South African Wines, or the U.S.A, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The design usually focuses on highlighting the brand. The label will tell you the brand, the grape variety and the producer.
Some people will tell you that old-world wines tend to have a lighter, more mineral palette with less alcohol content and a higher acidity — whereas new-world wines are fuller-bodied, with higher alcohol, lower acidity and a fruitier profile. However, this isn’t a strict rule of thumb. Climate and winemaking traditions have a significant effect on a variety of wines. South African Wines, for example, have a long heritage of winemaking tradition dating back to the 1600s. There is an impressive variety of palettes, styles and blends to rival old-world wines.
3. Get familiar with requirements of wine labels
Depending on where the wine is made, there are different requirements for the wine label (i.e. the information the label has to give you).
European wines — aka old-world wines — typically tell you the product category of the wine (such as still or sparkling), the ABV (alcohol percentage), the origin country and the provenance indication (e.g., A.O.C.), any allergens, the sugar content, and the standard health warning statement.
Non-European wines, on the other hand, tend to simply tell you the brand name, the type of wine, the producer, the ABV and any allergens. Alongside this, most wine labels will also include the vintage, which is when the grapes were harvested, the vineyard, and whether the wine is part of a private reserve, which may also have its own special logo.
4. Stick to the basics and figure out what you enjoy Don’t let all the terminology confuse you. Figure out the main types of wine you enjoy, and take it from there. The flavour profile (e.g, sweet, dry, light) is a great place to start, as well as the grape or the region. If ever you’re in a winery, don’t be shy to ask for advice or even to taste something — you never know what interesting things you could learn, and you might even discover something new to love.