Reading wine labels

One of the more daunting things I’ve come up against— what with my meagre knowledge of grapes and regions— is decoding labels. My formative years were spent in California, drinking California (and occasionally Oregon) wine, so I got used to the name of the wine being the same as the grape the wine was made from.

Sanford Pinot Noir. 

Mondavi Reserve Cabernet. 

La Crema Chardonnay.

You won’t find a French bottle labeled Chardonnay. Instead, French wines are named after the village they come from. So, Chablis is made from Chardonnay grapes grown and made into wine in…Chablis. Bourgogne Blanc,  (literally: White Burgundy), Mâconnais, Côte de Beaune, too. These are all places, and all Chardonnays. One of the hints you can usually take to the bank is bottle shape: Chardonnays tend to come in a hefty green-tinged bottle that has a thin neck, slim shoulders and a wide bottom, regardless of where they’re from, but more about that some other time.

Many sommeliers can taste the difference between grapes grown on different sides of a path, just a few meters apart. This is why the French are so big on calling things by their region- they’re obsessed with terroir, or the idea that the place (the soil, weather, geography, etc) shapes the taste of the wine as much or more than the grape variety. I tend to agree with them, although I’m not nearly as sensitive as some of the amazing somms I’ve encountered.

A tidbit about fancy French wines: they have a few different rankings, from the highly controlled but still approachable “villages“, to Premier Cru (first growth, aka whoa starting to get really fancy) and finally, Grand Cru (best growth, as designated a long time ago by French people who take wine seriously so we don’t have to). The Chablis below is a 1er Cru, and I think I paid around $45 for it. Yes, you can find it online for less than that, and you can find it in places like Montgomery County, MD for a whole lot more. This country continues to astound me with its wild alcohol laws. To move from CA, where you can buy Dom Perignon, a pack of smokes, and a gallon of vodka from the corner drugstore any time of day or night to Baltimore, where you have to buy alcohol from designated stores, to Potomac, where the consumer has to buy liquor from the county itself at hugely inflated costs, and don’t you even think about getting it after a certain hour or on Sunday.

Huh. Anyway, hopefully the Chablis didn’t get lost in there. “Villages” Chablis is lovely, by the way. If it’s good enough to get a “contrôlée” on the label, it’s going to be delicious, and won’t cost a mint. Drink it cool, but not screaming cold. This is a wine you want to savor.

Italians have a similar system, naming their wines by what I think of as regional recipes. So, for instance, a Brunello di Montalcino is made with 100% Sangiovese grapes, grown in a certain swath of Tuscany as determined by strict guidelines. The stringency of these rules is usually congruent to the quality of the wines, so if you find a wine that has DOGC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantia, which basically says “we can guarantee that this is from a specific high quality producer from this region who follows rules that result in excellent wines and no funny stuff or short cuts”) written on it, you’re probably in for a treat.

And if not, TAKE IT BACK. Please. These bottles aren’t cheap, which means your local wine shop paid handsomely for it, too. Be a hero. Return crappy wine.

Anyway, there are other legal denominations underneath DOGC, each of them indicating some sort of regulatory control- about region, kind, and amount of grape in a blend, probably some more oversight on growing techniques. These are DOC, and DO. Basically, the more letters there are in an Italian wine designation, the higher the quality (and likely, the price).

Similar to the French, you don’t get the grape info on the front label. Half the time, it will be on the back. In this case, they have kindly informed us that this is made of 100% Nebbiolo grapes.

Also, they’ve described the flavor profile quite accurately. This was a delicious, complex wine that smelled of cherries and licorice and had nearly too much tannin for me. It went to the edge and then came back! Definitely tasted violet in there, too. These are flavors that you can expect in some degree from all Nebbiolo wines. Because it is such a strong and complicated presence, it’s not hard to imagine why some winemakers choose to blend Nebbiolo with other, more traditionally juicy/fruity varieties.

Random trivia: Barolo and Barbaresco are known as the “King and Queen” of Italian wines, respectively. 

So this is the first step into judging a wine by its label. Next post: predicting what kind of flavors are likely to lie in the bottle, judging by a few things you can either eyeball or easily memorize.

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