|Understanding Wine Labels (Part 1)
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.
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.
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:
label courtesy of Peter May's "Unusual
MINIMUM TTB WINE LABEL
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.
Says very little. Some brands are reliable,
a good thing, but consistency in wine can be homogenous, dull, uninteresting.
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:
Provides some flavor grouping, but casts a very large net:
separates still from sparkling, table from dessert; grape from
other fermented sources.
sparkling by any of the natural
is injected with carbon dioxide.
wine made primarily of sound,
ripe citrus fruit
wine made primarily
of sound, ripe fruits other than grapes or citrus
from Other Agricultural Products
wine made from
sound agricultural products (vegetables)
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
wine containing synthetic
grape table wine
fermented or flavored with resin
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:
using a varietal or type with varietal significance (e.g., Fumé
Blanc or Meritage);
using a generic term (e.g., Burgundy, Chablis, or Port);
the name is qualified with the word "brand";
if the wine is labeled with the year the grapes were harvested
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.
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
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...
& 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
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.
"Perfected," or simply "Bottled by," mean
only that the named winery bottled the contents without requiring
any other operation or process to be performed.
& 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.
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
When it comes to flavor satisfaction, size matters little.
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.
and sparkling wine also tends to taste best out of magnums, because of the way it is produced (see our Sparkling Wine article).
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
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
Seasonal variance in the coolest winegrowing regions is
greater than in warmer areas. Global Warming has narrowed the
gap in recent years.
standards allows production of more consistent wines year to
year. Higher standards preserve distinctive seasonal differences
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.
(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.
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.
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).
to enactment, the BATF (now
known as TTB) informed the wine industry a sulfite disclosure
requirement was pending. They allowed the wineries, through
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
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.
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
There is no doubt that judicious use of sulfur in wineries
makes better-tasting and better-aging wines than when sulfur
is not added.
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.
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.
sulfide (H2S) smells like rotten eggs and is thankfully a relatively
rare experience in commercial wines these days.
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:
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.
(to text "Legal Entanglements")
Provides no information about flavor.
earlier mentioned, Europeans think Americans are incredibly
dense to have to be reminded of this on every bottle.
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.
Provides no information about flavor.
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?".
Provides no information about flavor.
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
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.
Provides no *reliable information about
EITHER flavor OR quality.
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.
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:
named for the place the grapes are grown
named for the predominate type of grape used
named for a commonly recognized style of wine
name created and owned by the brand
articles that follow explain the origins, parameters, details and
idiosyncrasies of each category, as well as provide examples.
Cannon and Jim LaMar
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
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.
Wine Labels site contains many examples
of interesting, strange, clever, unique, and humorous labels which
illustrate the variety and differences possible in wine packaging.
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.
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.