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10 Practical Tips That Will Make You An Expert At Reading A Wine Label

It's undoubtedly confusing, but these little tips will help.

Have you ever looked at a wine label and thought to yourself what the heck does this all mean? Reading a wine label can be overwhelming, especially if you don't know what you're looking for. But with a few tips and tricks in your arsenal, you can buy a bottle of wine with confidence, knowing exactly what's inside.

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Oh, and if you're feeling confused while reading, it might help to familiarize yourself with this list of important wine terms.

1. First, determine what country the wine is from.

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You can divide wines into two camps: old world and new world. Put simply, old world wines are from Europe whereas new world wines are from everywhere else. This is important because old world (aka European) wines are often labeled different than new world wines. Whereas new world wines most often display the kind of grape used, old world wines usually do not. If you're buying an old world wine, you'll likely have to do some extra research to determine what's in the bottle.

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2. Next, take a closer look at the region (called an appellation) or sub-appelation.

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It may sound ridiculous, but wines actually differ greatly by region. For instance, you might assume all French red wine is similar, but it varies tremendously depending on what specific region it's from. A red wine from Bordeaux, for example, is very different from a red wine from Burgundy. The wines come from different types of soil, are grown in different climates, and are made from different grapes.

The same goes for just about any country in the world. Luckily, most countries have developed a system of appellations (aka legally defined and geographically protected areas) where wine is grown. So when a wine lists a certain wine region, pay attention!

3. Check if the label displays the grape variety.

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Most new world wines (and some old world wines) will display the grape variety right on the bottle. For example, you might see "Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon," "Mendoza Malbec," and "Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc." These wines are straight-forward because you can look at the label and see exactly what you're buying.

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4. If no wine variety is listed, the region will help you determine it.

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I mentioned above that a red wine from Burgundy is different from a red wine from Bordeaux. That's because certain wine regions make wine from specific grapes. When you drink a red wine from Burgundy, the variety is Pinot Noir. If you drink a red wine from Bordeaux, it's a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. If you drink a red wine from Spain's Ribera del Duero, it's probably Tempranillo.

A white wine from the Loire Valley is likely Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc, whereas a white wine from Mosel, Germany is likely a Riesling. I know that it sounds incredibly confusing, but remember you don't have to know all of this by heart. The biggest takeaway is to pay attention to the wine region on the label. Then, a quick Google search will help you determine what kind of wine is in the bottle.

5. Look at the alcohol by volume.

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While you can't determine everything about a wine by looking at the ABV (alcohol by volume), you can learn a bit. A wine's alcohol by volume is always listed as a percentage on the bottle. Most white wines fall in the 10-13% range whereas most red wines are anywhere from 11%-15% ABV. So, what does this mean? Wines have a higher ABV for lots of factors, including the grape variety and the climate in which it's grown.

If you see a red blend from Napa Valley that is 14.5% ABV, you can assume it's probably a hearty more tannic wine. If you see another bottle, a red blend from Sonoma, that is 12% alcohol, you can assume it will be a lighter-bodied, easier-drinking wine. If you like deep, spicy, big wines, look for wines with a higher ABV. If you prefer chill-able, lighter wines, stick to the bottles displaying a lower ABV.

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6. Look at the year the wine was harvested, aka the vintage.

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Not to confuse you more, but most wines age differently. While many wines are meant to be drunk young, others are more age-worthy. An Italian wine from Barolo or a Cabernet from Napa could age for decades before it reaches peak drinkability, whereas a Vinho Verde from Porgugal should probably be consumed the year you buy it. That isn't to say you can't drink that Borolo now. Of course you can. But if you let it age, it will probably become smoother, more balanced, and complex.

There's another reason to look at the wine's vintage though, and that's because certain years produce better wines (it has a lot to do with climate). If you're choosing between a bottle of Sicilian Etna Rosso from 2015 or 2018, do a quick Google search or scan the wine using Vivino to see the better rated year.

7. Or check if the label displays an age classification.

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This applies more to those old world wines we talked about, but some regions use an age classification system, which is labeled on the bottle. Rioja is the most famous example. Rioja wines must follow certain aging requirements which begin with generic wines (no aging requirements) to "crianza," "rioja," and finally, "gran reserva" (wines that have been aged for at least five years, with two of those years being in the barrel and two in the bottle.)

So why should you care? These wines taste different. Younger wines tend to be be a bit more rugged and tannic. Whereas older wines, which have aged for much longer, will be more refined and softer.

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8. And see if the label displays any quality classifications.

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Most wine regions have some sort of classification system, and recognizing them will help you better understand wine labels. In the U.S., regions are divided into American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). In Italy, they are called DOCs. Wines labeled DOC, DOCG, and IGT are the most rigid classification systems, so they are usually high quality. When it comes to Spanish wines, look for wines labeled DOP, DOC and VT for the best quality.

In France, wines labeled AOP are the highest quality, while wines that say Vin de France (a lower classification) can be great value. It gets a bit more confusing when you look at Burgundy and Bordeaux because these two regions have their own quality systems. In Burgundy, premier cru and grand cru wines are at the top of the pyramid, whereas in Bordeaux wines are classified by growth, with first growth being the absolute most valued wines in the region. (If you're curious, you can expect to pay about $1,000 per bottle for those wines from a first-growth chateaux.)

9. If you're buying Riesling, look for an indication of the ripeness level.

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Riesling is a particularly tricky wine to buy. Most people associate Riesling with a super sweet dessert wine, but that isn't always the case. Most Rieslings will provide some indication of the sweetness level on the bottle. If you're buying an American riesling, the bottle should say dry, off-dry, or sweet. German Rieslings will say "trocken" or "kabinett" if the wine is dry or off-dry, whereas sweet wines will say "spätlese," "auslese" or "beerenauslese." Austrian Rieslings, by contrast, always tend to be dry so you might not see a designation at all on the label.

10. And finally, consider the producer.

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A good rule of thumb? If you find a bottle of wine you absolutely love, memorize the producer. On most wine labels, the producer is listed in large font at the top of the bottle. In some cases (mostly French wines), it's a bit less obvious, listed in smaller print at the bottom of the label. You might already recognize some big name producers like R. López de Heredia, Marchesi Antinori, Louis Jadot, just to name a few. In any case, if you know a bit about the producer, you can tell a lot about the wine (the winemaking style, how the wine is aged, etc).

If you're just starting to learn about wine, you might have to try a bunch of bottles in order to get to know which producers you like. That being said, you can also always check Vivino or other wine publications to learn about a specific producer and their reputation or wine-making style.

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