“In wine, there's truth.” - Pliny the Elder
Picking out a bottle of wine off an extensive wine list under the watchful eye of family and friends can be a daunting task. So can staring at racks of wine at your local wine shop. And perhaps you’re the person who picks a wine based on the picture on the label, yet have absolutely no idea what you’re getting yourself into (literally).
Now is your chance to learn how to be a smarter wine drinker! If you know what to look for when picking out your next bottle, the task may not seem so sinister, and may even impress your friends.
When most people read a wine label, they look for two things.
- What kind of wine it is (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir)
- The location or origin of the wine (Italy, Napa Valley)
But in reality, the educated consumer should look at a wine bottle and almost feel as if they are taking a dip into its history and culture. A bottle will be able to tell you the year the wine was born, where it’s from, who its parents are, and how it should taste.
Knowing what a wine label is telling you can help you decide what kind of wine you like, and what kind of wine you should buy. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to buy a wine you will enjoy.
What’s in a label?
Each country dictates what must be on its wine label, and some states even have certain requirements. For example, you will always see the class or type of wine, the name and address of the bottler, government warning, and alcohol content, among other things on a wine bottle sold in the United States.
Black Ankle, a winery in Mt. Airy, Frederick County, goes above and beyond, telling you the exact blend of their wine. Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, Baltimore County, and Slack Winery in Ridge, St. Mary’s County, all do the exact same thing. While this information may not help you in deciding whether it’s a wine you’d like, it does give you a glimpse into how the wine is made. The more information a wine label tells you, the better.
A Variety of Varietals
St. Michael’s Winery Vidal is a wine made by St. Michael’s Winery (the producer name), and the wine varietal is Vidal Blanc, a fruitier white wine that can be a Riesling alternative. For the grape name to be on the bottle, the wine must be made from at least 75 percent of that varietal. For a label to say “Maryland,” at least 75 percent of the grapes must have come from Maryland.
Many European wines are named after a place, like Chianti, from the region in Italy. Educated wine buyers know that wines labeled Chianti are always based on the Sangiovese grape. Thus, if you like Chianti, you should consider local Sangioveses from Fiore Winery or Slack Winery.
Age is just a number
Many times, you will see a year on a bottle. The year tells you when the grapes were harvested and when the wine was fermented. Known as the “vintage,” it isn’t as fancy as it seems. People tend to believe that the older the vintage, the better the wine, but this is not always true.
Some wines from some areas in some vintages age well—but this can be a matter of personal taste. There is no correlation between the year and the quality of the wine. Some years are better for grape growing than others, so the vintage separates great wines from good wines.
And watch for the word “reserve.” The descriptor is used as a way to distinguish one wine from another. In some countries the word “reserve” may mean that the wine was aged longer or has a higher pedigree, while in the United States, the word reserve may not actually mean anything, other than distinguishing one Cabernet from a winery’s other Cabernet. Knowing the producer of the wine or asking your local wine shop representative can help you make a better decisions if you have questions.
License and Registration
Just because your license says you’re from Maryland, doesn’t mean you always lived here. The same is true with wine. Some labels say that the wine was estate-bottled. This simply means that the grapes for the wine were grown on-site by the winery. Other wineries get their grapes from somewhere else – from vineyards in Maryland or beyond. Looking for the appellation—the legal place of origin—“Maryland” on the front label guarantees at least 75 percent of the grapes were grown in Maryland soil.
By knowing exactly what a wine label is telling you, you can pick out a great bottle of wine that you will love. Once you figure out the grape varietal that you like best, you can experiment with vintages and specific wineries. Before you know it, you’ll be ordering the perfect bottle of wine with ease!
Briana Berg is the marketing coordinator for Maryland Wineries Association and an ambassador for the Maryland wine industry. If you have questions about wine for Briana, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and they may be addressed in future columns. You can also start the conversation in the comments section below. Cheers.
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