At Vinley Market, our sommeliers taste thousands of wines in order to narrow the choices for our wine store and wine club. However, as you're probably not spending your work days wine tasting, (1.) you should consider changing professions and (2.), you should keep this guide handy for when you find yourself staring at shelves of bottles that all look the same.
In order to help you pick good wine by reading the label, we've interviewed wine experts Allison Levine and Laura Uncorked to compile a guide to picking fine wine by reading the label. Hint: Judge wine by what the label says not by how it looks!
"Most high-quality wines will include at least vintage, grape variety, and region on the front label," says certified sommelier and wine blogger, Laura Uncorked. "Often, poorly made wines can't claim a vintage, region, or grape variety because they've been made with a medley of substandard fruit - the highly modified Velveeta of the wine industry. Wines that can list two of the three have been made with quality in mind!"
CHECK: WHERE IS THE WINE FROM?
"The more specific the location on the label, the better," agrees wine expert, marketer and blogger, Allison Levine. "If a label simply reads 'California', this means that the grapes can come from anywhere in the state. Sonoma County, Santa Ynez Valley, Napa Valley are more specific wine regions but still rather diverse. Stag’s Leap District in Napa, Ballard Canyon in Santa Ynez and Russian River Valley in Sonoma are getting even more specific. When the wine says something 'Larner Vineyard, Ballard Canyon, Santa Ynez Valley' then the label is telling you a lot.
"Santa Barbara County is diverse with a transfer mountain range that runs from west to east, getting one degree warmer with each mile inland. Ballard Canyon sits between the cool-climate marine influenced Sta. Rita Hills and the warmer Happy Canyon. Ballard Canyon is a north-south oriented canyon that provides wind, fog and a maritime influence, making it an ideal spot for Rhone varieties such as Syrah and Grenache. Larner Vineyard, which sits at the southern edge of Ballard Canyon, has sandy soils on top of limestone that are well-drained. When you sip a glass of Syrah from Larner Vineyard, you can almost taste the place. So, the more specific the place designated on the label, the better."
CHECK: WHAT IS THE ALCOHOL PERCENTAGE?
"The percentage of alcohol in wine is typically between 11%-15% abv," says Allison. "Wines that fall within this range should be dry, meaning no residual sugar. If you see that the wine has a very low alcohol level (9%), it will likely be sweet because the yeast were prevented from converting all the sugar in the grapes into alcohol." Conversely, when you start getting into 14.5%, alcohol, watch out. "A wine can be as much as 1% higher than what is actually on the label, and high alcohol wines tend to be over ripe and very jammy. I suggest looking for a wine that is 13%-14% abv, as it should be balanced," says Allison.
CHECK: WHAT IS THE GRAPE VARIETAL
In order to get what you're looking for, check the label to see what grape varietals are listed. "In the new world (US, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa), we put the name of the grape on the label," says Allison. "But the old world (France, Italy, Spain), tends to list the location where the grapes were grown instead. This is because many regions around the world are regulated as to what grapes can grow there.
When it comes to old world wines, you'll have to memorize or Google what grape varietals are associated with specific regions. "In Burgundy, the white grape is Chardonnay and the red grape is Pinot Noir," says Allison. "So if you see 'Burgundy' on the label of a red wine, you are to assume it's Pinot Noir. In Bordeaux, their white wine is a blend of two white grapes - Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Their red wine can be made from up to five different grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In Italy, Sangiovese is the grape behind Chianti, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. So if you are buying a wine that does not have the grape listed on it, do a quick google search to see what grape is grown in that particular region."
To ensure quality with old world wines, "Look for a regional or national seal," suggests Laura. "Many European countries legally regulate wines from classic regions like Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja. For quality control, these wines have a seal on their back label confirming that regional requirements, like aging standards, and grape quality levels, have been followed."
At Vinley Market, our mission is to curate exceptional wines that don't break the bank in order to save you from the option overload at other wine shops and grocery stores. When in doubt in picking a wine, you can also take our wine palate quiz.