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Understanding Wine Labels (Part 1)
THE BASICS

The label on a bottle of wine undergoes more regulatory and creative scrutiny than perhaps any label on any other commodity. After a design is created and selected, the label must pass muster from the government agency that controls wine production as well as the various government agencies controlling importation and sale in every country where the wine is distributed.

A collage of wine labels.There are collectors of wine labels who don't consume wine and consumers of wine who base their purchases entirely on the appeal of the labels. Understanding wine labels can be difficult and intimidating for the consumer who is primarily interested in the taste of the contents. Knowing what information labels are permitted to and are required to provide can help.

Surprisingly, very little of the information on the label tells how the product in the bottle may be expected to taste. In fact, descriptions which often appear on back labels are completely unregulated and frequently are composed of "buzz words" that appeal to the public palate, rather than being actual notes based on an unbiased tasting of the contents.

The consumer can make better buying decisions by initially knowing the basic facts required on wine labels, subsequently absorbing the idea of what aromas and flavors to expect from regional wine characteristics, and finally considering how this information combines to reveal the tastes beneath the cork. The place to start is in learning the legal requirements. 

LEGAL ENTANGLEMENTS
Local laws dictate label information for the point of sale where the wine is marketed, rather than where the wine is made. There can be great variation in labeling requirements from country to country. America, for instance, uniquely requires a Government Warning on wine labels, so wines from outside the U.S. may either have labels printed especially for exporting to the American market or may have "strip labels" glued on each bottle with the necessary information. Conversely, U.S. wines that are exported to Europe may sometimes be required to cover up or obliterate the alcohol warning statement (which many worldly wine drinkers think is ludicrous, anyway, and prompts them to question the general American mental capacity).

Label information on wine sold in the United States is regulated within a division of the Department of the Treasury. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is responsible for regulation and taxation of alcohol and tobacco. In addition to issuing federal permits for building wineries, establishing American Viticultural Areas, and overseeing health statements on wine bottles, the TTB approves wine labels. The minimum information required for bottles to be sold in the U.S. (whether of foreign or domestic origin) includes five categories:

Diagram showing the BATF minimum labeling requirements.

("Prosperity Red" label courtesy of Peter May's "Unusual Wine Labels")

MINIMUM TTB WINE LABEL REQUIREMENTS
Official Regulation:
Relationship to Flavor:
#1. BRAND
An identifying brand name is required on all wine bottles. A person's name, such as the name of the owner, may be used as a brand. No name may be used that is misleading or creates and inference as to the age, origin, or characteristics of the product. On wines of domestic origin, no brand or trade names of foreign origin may be used.
  BRAND
Says very little. Some brands are reliable, a good thing, but consistency in wine can be homogenous, dull, uninteresting.
#2. CLASS
It is mandatory that all wine labels identify the contents as being one of several classes. The most common type of wine is Class 1: Table Wine, defined as having an alcohol content of not less than 7% and not in excess of 14% by volume. Other acceptable designations for this same class are "light wine," "red table wine," "light white wine," "sweet table wine," etc. The
official TTB regulations (click on "Labeling and Advertising of Wine" link) tediously and precisely define each class; the primary purpose of this requirement is for setting rates and collecting alcohol taxes. The following chart summarizes the basics:
  CLASS
Provides some flavor grouping, but casts a very large net: separates still from sparkling, table from dessert; grape from other fermented sources.

CLASS

TITLE

BRIEF DESCRIPTION

Class 2

Sparkling Wine

wines made sparkling by any of the natural methods

Class 3

Carbonated Grape Wine

wine which is injected with carbon dioxide.

Class 4

Citrus Wine

wine made primarily of sound, ripe citrus fruit

Class 5

Fruit Wine

wine made primarily of sound, ripe fruits other than grapes or citrus

Class 6

Wine from Other Agricultural Products

wine made from sound agricultural products (vegetables)

Class 7

Aperitif Wine

wine having an alcoholic content of not less than 15 percent by volume, compounded from grape wine containing added brandy or alcohol, flavored with herbs and other natural aromatic flavoring materials

Class 8

Imitation Wine

wine containing synthetic materials

Class 9

Retsina Wine

grape table wine fermented or flavored with resin


Official Regulation
Relationship to Flavor

DISTINCTIVE DESIGNATION OPTIONS
In addition to Class, a distinctive or fanciful proprietary identifying name is permitted in accordance with common trade practice. Under many conditions, an appellation of origin that discloses the true place of origin of the grapes is mandatory:

if using a varietal or type with varietal significance (e.g., Fumé Blanc or Meritage);

if using a generic term (e.g., Burgundy, Chablis, or Port);

if the name is qualified with the word "brand";

or if the wine is labeled with the year the grapes were harvested (vintage dated).

  VARIETAL / APPELLATION
The main factors that determine wine flavor are winemaking technique, variety of grape used, and where the grapes are grown. This means varietal or type and appellation are each important indicators of separate flavor characteristics.

#3. ALCOHOL CONTENT
Alcohol content must be stated on any wines containing more than 14% alcohol by volume. These wines, even if the level of alcohol is reached naturally, are considered "fortified" and taxed at a higher rate1 than wines under 14%. For wines under 14%, either the alcohol content may be stated or the designations "Table Wine" or "Light Wine" may be used, both phrases implying alcohol content within a range of 7% to 14%.

A tolerance of 1% over or under the stated level is permitted on wines above 14%. A greater latitude of 1.5% is allowed on wines under 14% (although in no case is it allowed to exceed 14%). Many wines are labeled "alcohol 12.5% by volume" to take full advantage of this tolerance. The variation is permitted for practical reasons. It is impossible to accurately predict final alcohol content in order to print labels in advance of bottling and it's completely uneconomical to print labels after the wine is bottled. Evaporation during aging is not entirely controllable, so some changes will occur. The most common methods of measuring alcohol content use equipment that is either imprecise (vinometer) or somewhat cumbersome (ebulliometer). It can also be a considerable expense for small-volume producers. Large modern wineries frequently have fairly sophisticated chemistry labs on-site and are able take more precise measurements using a gas chromatograph. In spite of the regulations, and regardless of methods, violations by over-stating or, more likely, under-stating alcohol content on labels are fairly common.2

 

ALCOHOL
Generally, alcohol level is the best indicator on any label as to the wine's relative sweetness or dryness. Usually, wines under 11% alcohol tend to sweetness, while those from 11% to 13.5% tend to dryness. Those above 13.5% can go either way, since residual sugar is often used to balance the slightly hot taste of alcohol. Many modern California table wines are above 13.5%, as wine critics increasingly prefer higher levels of ripeness, thereby influencing the wine consumer...

#4. WHO & WHERE BOTTLED
The name and address of the bottler must appear on the label of all American wines, immediately preceded by the words "bottled by."

If the bottler also made at least 75% of the wine by fermenting the must and clarifying the resulting wine, the terms "produced and bottled by" may be used.

"Made and bottled by" may be used: if the named winery fermented and clarified a minimum of 10% of the wine; if the named winery changed the class of the wine (see #2) by adding alcohol, brandy, or carbonation; or if the named winery produced sparkling wine by secondary fermentation.

"Cellared," "Vinted," or "Prepared" means the named winery subjected the wine to any cellar treatment specified in the regulations, such as clarification or barrel aging, at that location. "Blended and bottled by" means that the named winery mixed the wine with other wine of the same class and type at that location.

"Selected," "Perfected," or simply "Bottled by," mean only that the named winery bottled the contents without requiring any other operation or process to be performed.

 

WHO & WHERE BOTTLED
Where the wine is bottled has very little to do with how it tastes. The average consumer pays entirely too much attention to winery location and not nearly enough to vineyard location or appellation. By the same token, who made the wine matters little, except for the few exceptional Estates with very distinctive wines. The greatest skill a winemaker can possess is the ability to blend; it requires tasting various batches of wine and knowing how to combine these into an appealing final result. Locking into a single or a few grape sources is limiting.

#5. QUANTITY OF CONTENTS
The U.S. Congress in 1977, mandated the wine industry to use metric size bottles as the industry standard. As a result, we no longer use the terms 'pint', 'fifth', 'half-gallon' or 'gallon'. For tax purposes, however, all wineries are required to report production in gallons, not liters.

The net volume of the contents can take the form of either the authorized metric standard of fill prescribed in the regulations or non-standard. If the metric standards of fill are used, the equivalent U.S. measurement in fluid ounces may also appear as follows: 3 liters (101 fl. oz.); 1.5 liters (50.7 fl. oz.); 1 liter (33.8 fl. oz.); 750 ml (25.4 fl. oz.); 500 ml (16.9 fl. oz.); 375 ml (12.7 fl. oz.); 187 ml (6.3 fl. oz.); 100 ml (3.4 fl. oz.); and 50 ml (1.7 fl. oz.). For sizes larger than 3 liters, the containers must be filled and labeled in quantities of even liters (4 liters, 5 liters, 6 liters, etc.).

The net contents need not be stated on any label if "blown, etched, sandblasted, marked by underglaze coloring, or otherwise permanently marked by any method approved by the Director, in the sides, front, or back of the bottle, in letters and figures so as to be plainly legible under ordinary circumstances." The net contents statement also must not be obscured in any manner, such as being covered, even partially, by an applied label.

If the measurement of the net contents is non-standard, the net contents statement must appear on a label affixed to the front of the bottle.

For tax purposes and to satisfy Truth in Labeling laws, any size designation on a bottle must be filled to within 1% of that size. The TTB has the right to pull samples off the bottling line to insure uniform fill levels. If the fill is too low, the winery could conceivably bottle an extra bottle or two. However, if the fill level is too high, the winery would be under-reporting the number of (usually 2.4 gallon) cases bottled, thereby paying less Federal tax.

 

QUANTITY of CONTENTS
When it comes to flavor satisfaction, size matters little.

There are some exceptions. Wines tend to oxidize more slowly and age better in larger bottles, so although there are no guarantees, big bottles are preferable to small in old wines.

Champagne and sparkling wine also tends to taste best out of magnums, because of the way it is produced (see our Sparkling Wine article).

VINTAGE DATING OPTION
A vintage year may be used on labels of wine produced in the U.S. when 95% comes from grapes harvested and fermented within that calendar year and which is labeled with an appellation or AVA more specific than a county name. On wines that use a state, county or multi-county appellation to identify the grape source, the requirement to print a vintage date on the label is only 85%, effective June 1, 2006.
3

In Australia and most of the European Union countries, the minimum to qualify for vintage dating is 85%. Only a few specific regions, such as Bordeaux, require the higher standard of 95%. Canada also mandates a 95% standard. Other wine-producing countries, including Chile and South Africa, require that only 75% of the wine be grown, harvested, and fermented within the "vintage" year to use it on labels.

In order to allow for producers to use newer wine to "top" barrels from which evaporation occurs over the period of months or years as the wine ages, no country has regulations dictating 100%.


FURTHER LEGAL ENTANGLEMENTS

VINTAGE
Seasonal variance in the coolest winegrowing regions is greater than in warmer areas. Global Warming has narrowed the gap in recent years.

Lower vintage standards allows production of more consistent wines year to year. Higher standards preserve distinctive seasonal differences that occur.

DECLARATION OF SULFITES
Any wine bottled after July 9, 1987, must have a label affixed that is a declaration of sulfites. The label may be front, back, strip, or neck, but it must be affixed to every bottle.

Sulfur (or sulphur) is a non-metallic element that is one of the most common present in nature. It is used to maintain the stability and potency of some medications, also in the production of gunpowder, matches, fertilizers and fumigants, to vulcanize rubber, and as a part of common compounds used to preserve a wide variety of foods and food products, including to prevent melanosis ("black spot") on shrimp and lobster, to "condition" dough, to bleach food starches, and to inhibit "browning" in bottled lemon juice and virtually all processed potatoes. Sulfur is readily digested by the human body and is one small component of fats, bodily fluids, and skeletal minerals and is essential to life itself.

Wine producers worldwide have been using sulfur for centuries, primarily to prevent spoilage from bacteria and oxidation and to improve color. The wine industry would readily accept an alternative that has the benefits of sulfur without the potential side effects, but no other compound has yet been found that provides all the beneficial effects of sulfur while being so relatively benign.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, approximately 1% of the population has some sensitivity to sulfur compounds and sulfites and about 5% of asthma sufferers can have adverse sulfite reactions. Asthmatics who depend on corticosteroids are especially prone to sulfite sensitivity and can have severe reactions (the Mayo Clinic web site has additional information).

Prior to enactment, the BATF (now known as TTB) informed the wine industry a sulfite disclosure requirement was pending. They allowed the wineries, through the Wine Institute, to suggest the criteria that would be used. Large wineries used their economic leverage and political power to make certain the regulation would apply to all wines bottled, including those from wineries that use low-sulfur technology and even those that do no sulfur additions whatsoever.

The maximum amount of sulfites allowed in wine sold in the U.S.A., to legally avoid affixing a sulfite disclosure statement, is only 10 ppm. The maximum legal limit for sulfites in wine in most countries is about 335-350 parts per million. In practice, the average amount of sulfites in bottled wine is between 20 and 50 ppm. This is a much lower level than virtually all sulfur-containing processed foods, which may range from as little as 6 to 6,000 ppm. The maximum legal limit for sulfites in dried fruit, for example, is 2000 parts per million.

Some sulfur is naturally occurring in the environment and in grapes, as well as in nearly all fruit and vegetables. Even without the addition of sulfur, yeast fermentation produces a natural sulfur level of between 15-20 ppm, so it is virtually impossible to avoid this labeling requirement. There are no wines that are sulfite-free.

 

SULFITES
There is no doubt that judicious use of sulfur in wineries makes better-tasting and better-aging wines than when sulfur is not added.

Use of a minimal amount, applied at the proper time, is important to obtain desirable results, yet avoid the smell or taste of sulfur in the finished product. Sulfur defects are inexcusable considering modern technological options.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) smells like a burnt matchstick and is the lesser of sulfur evils. It occurs most often in wines from producers whose pride in their ancient heritage makes them resist changing their methods to incorporate scientific improvements.

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) smells like rotten eggs and is thankfully a relatively rare experience in commercial wines these days.

 

GOVERNMENT HEALTH WARNING
Any alcoholic beverage bottled or imported for sale or distribution in the United States since November 18, 1989, must have a health warning statement on the label. These warnings may contain any of several specific messages, such as:

GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) ACCORDING TO THE SURGEON GENERAL, WOMEN SHOULD NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DURING PREGNANCY BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF BIRTH DEFECTS. (2) CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES IMPAIRS YOUR ABILITY TO DRIVE A CAR OR OPERATE MACHINERY, AND MAY CAUSE HEALTH PROBLEMS.

BACK
(to text "Legal Entanglements")

 

 

HEALTH WARNING
Provides no information about flavor.

As earlier mentioned, Europeans think Americans are incredibly dense to have to be reminded of this on every bottle.

DIETARY INFORMATION
In spring, 2004, the TTB announced it would begin allowing wine labels to provide information on calorie, carbohydrate, and protein content. They issued a temporary ruling to provide guidance for wine producers and are beginning to accept public comment aimed at establishing formal policy guidelines and whether this information should be optional or mandatory.

 

 

DIETARY IMPACT
Provides no information about flavor.

LEGALITY IN TRANSITION
The issues surrounding the labeling of "Organic Wine" is both complex and convoluted. It can best be explained by specialists in organic issues, so we direct you there.
Clearing up the Confusion About Organic Wine, on the Organic Consumers Association site, brings transparency to this tangent. One of our contributors also has an opinion and poses the question, "Is Organic Wine Just Another Marketing Ploy?".

 

 

"ORGANIC"
Provides no information about flavor.

NO LEGAL STANDING
In addition to the mandatory list, there are terms that commonly appear on wine labels that have no legal definition or regulation. They are primarily marketing terms used to encourage purchase or to designate levels of price and/or quality within a brand line.

"The word Reserve is so prolific in the marketplace that its meaning has been lost, resulting in consumer confusion," to quote the Wine Institute, from its 1994 petition to the BATF (TTB) requesting a definition and ruling on usage. This includes many forms, such as "Proprietor's Reserve", "Winemaker's Reserve", etc. Some countries in the European Common Market will not allow the importation of any U.S. wines using unregulated terms on the labels. Such terms as "Special Selection", "Private Stock", "Limited Release", or any other implication of rarity or quality are in the same category.

 

"RESERVE"
Provides no *reliable information about EITHER flavor OR quality.

*Caveat emptor: let the buyer beware.

The official TTB site provides a notated example (see page 2 of the pdf file) showing where each of these regulations might apply to a wine label.

Now that we've cleared all the regulation hurdles, we'll explore how wine labels present some idea of flavor characteristics. Each wine-producing area has practices and traditions that determine label information from the point of origin. These labeling practices vary a great deal from one country to another and even from region to region within a country's borders. Although they can be quite complex in reflecting these sundry customs and regulations, all of the wine labels of the world can be broken down into four basic categories:

APPELLATION: named for the place the grapes are grown

VARIETAL: named for the predominate type of grape used

GENERIC: named for a commonly recognized style of wine

PROPRIETARY: name created and owned by the brand
BACK to TEXT

The articles that follow explain the origins, parameters, details and idiosyncrasies of each category, as well as provide examples.

Alan Cannon and Jim LaMar


NOTES:
1. The Federal Excise Tax on wines under 14% alcohol content is $1.07 per gallon; that tax increases to $1.57 / gal for wines between 14% and 21% and to $3.40 / gal for sparkling wines (as of 2011). RETURN

2. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on April 24, 2011, reporting the results from testing 15 premium wines that determined the actual alcohol percentage exceeded the alcohol percentage printed on the label in the majority by more than 0.5 percentage points and in two instances by more than 1.0 percentage points. RETURN

3. The California Wine Institute, dominated by large wine corporations, proposed lowering this standard in 2005, purportedly to bring more "consistency" to the consumer. In our opinion, this also further comoditizes wine and reduces variety and uniqueness, allowing superior vintages to be "stretched" by blending them with wine from inferior years. RETURN


RELATED LINKS:
Robin Garr has a simplified and handy Wine Label Decoder as part of his Wine Lovers Pages.

Jim Gordon summarizes important label terminology in How to...Know Where a Wine Really Comes From on Wine.com.

Peter May's Unusual Wine Labels site contains many examples of interesting, strange, clever, unique, and humorous labels which illustrate the variety and differences possible in wine packaging.

"Bottle Battle" by Stanton Peele from the Libertarian magazine Reason; a very thorough discussion of the pro and con arguments over proposed changes in U.S. wine labels to mention health effects.

Another "Editorial: Old wine, new labels; Objections to advertising the virtues of vino", from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, touting truth in advertising as the best reason for health considerations on wine labels.



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Page created August 20, 2000; last updated December 16, 2011
Except as noted, all content, including design, text and images, is property of the site owner.
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