Bottom Line/Personal: Have you ever stood at the wine store, needed to buy a bottle of wine and had no idea which wine to buy…what words meant what…so you started looking at the pretty ones? Well, let’s get you educated on how to read a wine label.
I’m Sarah Hiner, president of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversations With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.
Today I’m talking to Amy Dixon. Amy is the former buyer and fine wine expert at Stew Leonard’s wine stores, one of the top 10 retailers for wine in the country. She is currently managing a portfolio of fine wine collectors at Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines in Darien, Connecticut.
Amy lost 98% of her eyesight in 2007. Now in addition to being a wine expert, she is a paratriathlete on Team USA, and she’s also on the watch list for their cycling team. You can learn more about Amy and all of her cycling and her wine expertise at BlogSpot.BlindSommelier.com. Welcome, Amy.
Amy Dixon: Thank you for having me.
Bottom Line: You’re in the middle of the wine store and you have no clue-so let’s get the answers to how it is that you read a label and what are the key words on the label that somebody has to be aware of to be able to make an intelligence decision.
Dixon: Basically, a California wine label is going to give you a few basic pieces. You’re going to have the name of the winery, which is Joseph Phelps, the people that produced the wine. And you’re going to probably have the grape variety on the label. In this case, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon. It also gives me a little bit more information and tells me specifically where it’s from, and it’s from the Napa Valley. As most of us know, that’s in California. For those of you who don’t, don’t sweat it, not a big deal. And then finally, you’re going to have the vintage, the year that that wine was harvested and produced.
Bottom Line: If you don’t know whether or not Joseph Phelps is a good guy or a bad guy, what’s the first thing you should be looking at on that label?
Dixon: Really, vintage is very important. But again, that requires a little bit more information and a good, broad base of wine knowledge. My recommendation, when in doubt, is always to ask the retailer. It is really important to establish a good relationship with a retailer who can guide you in this direction.
Bottom Line: But at a minimum, though, it does have the type of grape that’s on there. So in this case, it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon so that you know if you want red, white…
Dixon: Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay. You could pick something that you like or that you previously had enjoyed and stay in your comfort zone. And then once you’ve tried that a few times, I always recommend to look for something similar or go find the retailer and ask him, “Hey, I liked this Cabernet last time I was here. What else do you recommend? I like Cabernet. I’d like to try a few others” and so on and so forth.
Bottom Line: Now, American labels are different from European labels, is that right?
Dixon: Yes. This is one of my favorite producers from France. This is from the region of Burgundy. His name is Louis Jadot, and he’s what’s called a négociant, somebody who not only owns vineyards but also has contracts with vineyard owners and he buys grapes or juice from them to produce his own wines. In this case, it says “elevé,” which we think of elevation, raising the wine. It says “mis en bouteilles,” which means it was bottled for Louis Jadot. So it is raised and bottled for Louis Jadot.
But you don’t have to have a broad base of the French language in order to understand a French wine label. I know just looking at this point blank that it is produced by Louis Jardot. Bourgogne is the biggest thing on the label; this is going to tell me the region that this wine was produced in. Bourgogne means that it came from Burgundy.
Also, it tells me—which it usually does not in Burgundy; they don’t have to, but they’re helping us out a little bit, they’re kind of “Americanizing” their wine label by putting “Chardonnay” on here to let me know that it is indeed a white wine from Burgundy, in this case Chardonnay.
Bottom Line: How would somebody know that Bourgogne means Burgundy? I’d just have to do my French homework?
Dixon: You’d have to do a little bit of French homework. Then we get a little more specific than this, and this is unique to Burgundy and France, but Italy has similar regulations regarding their wine label…Spain has similar regulations.
The primary thing on the label is the region, or in this case, it’s the village. In the last wine that we saw, it was Bourgogne, which means it could have come from anywhere in the 100-mile stretch. This particular wine has to come from a specific village. This is like saying Stamford, Connecticut, or Greenwich, Connecticut. This came from Savigny-les-Beaune. This is a specific town. It could have come from anywhere within this town. And again, it says it’s elevé, mis en bouetilles for Louis Jadot. So Louis Jadot made this wine from the region of Savigny-les-Beaune.
And the next one is a more specific label, and in addition to the town, it tells me the parcel within the town that this particular wine came from. It came from La Dominode, which is a single vineyard, which can be one-quarter of an acre or it can be 30 acres, depending upon the region that you’re talking about. So I know that this is a wine from Louis Jadot that came from the town of Savigny-les-Beaune, and finally it came from the parcel within that town called La Dominode.
Underneath in tiny words there, it says “Appellation Savigny-les-Beaune Premier Cru Contrôlée,” which means this came from a better quality than just a standard village-level wine. This probably has a very good quality.
And it’s going to also give me an idea of the alcohol content, which it has to by law in the United States. Alcohol content is a good first glimpse into what that wine is going to be about. Generally speaking, in red and white still wines-we’re not talking about wines like ports or dessert wines, sherries, things like that-if you see an average of, say, 12% to 14%, that’s going to give me an idea that it is a dry wine. Generally, the higher the alcohol levels in that 12% to 15% range are going to be a drier wine.
Anything 11% or under is going to be slightly sweet, because if we think about the short version of fermentation process, it’s that you’re converting grape sugar into alcohol. So the less it’s fermented, the less alcohol content, and the sweeter that wine is going to be. Very simple math. So the higher that alcohol content, generally speaking, the drier the wine. So this tells me that this is a dry wine, because it’s in that 12% to 15% range.
And finally on this label, in addition to it saying Louis Jadot-that’s the name of the winemaker or the winery-it says “Domaine Louis Jadot.” And why does it say that? It says that because not only did he produce it, but it comes from vineyards that he owns. He didn’t buy these grapes from someone else.
So there’s a lot of good information on this label. Again, it’s going to require a little bit of wine knowledge and it’s going to require a good retailer to sort of steer you through the muck and the mire.
Bottom Line : So just to clarify, nowhere on that French label does it really say what type of wine it is.
Dixon: No, and it will not. In France specifically, almost never will it show the grape variety, but it will always show the region and the producer and the vintage.
Bottom Line: And how about other countries? So the US, they’re very user-friendly.
Bottom Line: France, not so user-friendly, what a surprise.
Bottom Line: How about other regions that people may be buying a lot of wine from?
Dixon: Absolutely. Some of the easiest wine regions to understand from a label perspective would certainly be Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, because they sort of follow the American model. Which is lovely—you’ve got your grape variety and you’ve got your region and you’ve got your vintage, plain and simple.
Bottom Line: Easy. And how about alcohol percentage?
Dixon: Alcohol percentage is a really, really good question. It’s required by law to have it on the label for any wine that’s imported into the United States. So it’s going to give you a good indication of what style of wine that is, whether it’s a dry wine, a sweet wine. Generally, the dry range is going to be anywhere from about 12% alcohol to 15% alcohol. Anything about 15%, there’s actually a sin tax where there’s a higher taxation level for the alcohol content in the wine.
So a lot of wineries are allowed a little wiggle room. They’re allowed 1% plus or minus. So if an alcohol level is 16%, generally it’s going to say 15% on the label, so that’s something to watch out for. If it says 15% on the label, I guarantee you nine times out of 10, it’s going to be 16%, so be prepared for a little bit of a hangover.
Generally speaking, 12% to 15% is going to be a drier-style wine. Grapes are sugar converted into alcohol, so the lower the alcohol content, the sweeter the wine because the higher sugar that’s left in the wine. It hasn’t been fully fermented to dry.
Bottom Line: All right, thank you, Amy Dixon. So the Bottom Line: on reading a wine label? Look first at the type of grape that’s on it if it’s an American wine or a wine from Chile or from Australia-you’ll be able to see the type of grape that’s on there. You’ll also see the region that’s on there. If it’s France, you may be out of luck and you may need some additional help from your expert at your wine store.
The other really important thing is to look at that alcohol content, because that can tell you whether it’s a dry wine or a sweet wine. More than 12%, it’s going to be drier. Less than 12%, it’ll be on the sweet side. This is Sarah Hiner with Bottom Line: Conversations With the Experts.