Wine 101: Understanding Wine Labels

Getting to the bottom of winemaking jargon

 


I love the back labels on wine bottles. Some are famously informative; Ridge Vineyards' labels, for example, offer a descriptive and virtually complete chronicle of the details of each wine. The extra info wineries provide on the winemaking techniques can really tell you a lot about that wine, as long as you're speaking the same language as the winemaker!

Even I can get confused by the dense and sometimes arcane language used by wineries, and winemakers, for that matter. Folks in the biz tend to forget that the wine world has its own vocabulary, one that many consumers can find confusing, so today I’m going to decipher the snippet quoted above. It’s really pretty explicit, and very telling -- but only if you can read it!
Related Imagery
Ridge Vineyards Back label

As mentioned in the article.

So let’s get at it by breaking down the sentence item by item. Here's the text of a back label from a bottle we recently sampled here in the Snooth offices.

“Whole cluster pressed, settled overnight and racked to barrel for non-inoculated primary and secondary fermentation. Barrel aged 14 months, racked twice, assembled and tank aged for 2 months prior to bottling.”

Whole cluster pressed

This means exactly what it sounds like: The grapes are pressed while still attached to the stems. This is not unusual with very high quality white wines, since the alternative -- destemming the grapes -- can bruise the fruit and leaves it exposed to oxygen for longer, making it more likely to oxidize, if even slightly. This should not be confused with whole cluster fermentation, where entire clusters of berries are allowed to ferment without undergoing prefermentation pressing.

After this whole cluster pressing the winemaker is left with fresh grape juice and a pomace of grape skins, seeds, and stems.

Settled overnight

When grapes are pressed, even lightly, some bits and pieces of skin, stems, and general debris can find their way into the juice. By allowing the juice to settle over night, these bits and pieces, which can contribute off flavors to a wine, are allowed to settle to the bottom of the tank.

This should not be confused with cold-soaking, which generally refers to red grape juice that is kept at temperatures low enough to prevent fermentation from beginning for several days. This allows for a greater extraction of coloring and flavoring compounds from the skins before alcoholic fermentation actually begins.

Racked

This is a term you’ll find quite often. It simply means that the juice, or wine in barrel, is drained off the solids that drop to the bottom of the barrel. In the case of this "early racking," it’s those solids that slipped through the press. For later rackings the wine is being drained off its lees – the dead yeast cells that allowed for the alcoholic fermentation -- as well as even smaller bits of debris that took longer to settle out of solution.

Well, who would have thought a single sentence could be so complicated? And we're only just halfway through it. Join me next week as we wrap up with the detail about Primary and Malolactic Fermentation, Barrel Aging, Assembly, and Tank Aging.




Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Great article about deconstructing the wine label and demystifying some of the wine speak that most of us (me included) don't know about, or don't think to read in great detail (generally because my wife and I are too busy enjoying the wine). I hope the next part of your article—in addition to the terms you've referenced at the end of this one—will include some details about how wine bottles in various appellations and/or regions are labeled, with regards to French and Italian wines. I know a little Italian and French, but every time I go to buy a bottle of these wines in particular I have to translate (i.e. decode) the label word by word to figure out if it's something worth drinking.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 11:27 AM


  • Snooth User: philk1
    461967 25

    Thank you. This contains great info for a wine world novice such as I. I look forward to next week's dramatic conclusion.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 1:38 PM


  • Snooth User: JLN49er
    177848 1

    WOW!! You have just added tons of conversational material for our next dinner party. Our guests will think that I really know this stuff. Thanks.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 2:06 PM


  • Snooth User: denisstad
    437389 7

    The Ridge Vineyards label style should be one that others emulate. More often than not, the label tells me nothing about the wine itself, just all of the required government warnings. Maybe if we start demanding better labels, winemakers will know we are serious about wanting more details on the wine itself rather than all the reasons we shouldn't drink it.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 2:46 PM


  • Beyond informative text, wine labels have words required by federal law. First, all information must be accurate; even pictures or drawings of the winery must be real pictures or renderings. Then, the marketer's or importer's name and city, state, must be stated.
    What most consumers, and many in the wine trade, don't know is that the word "Produced" by so-and-so winery/company can only be used whe the company actually produces wine from grapes or freshly squeezed juice. No more than 25%, if any, of wine from another source can be blended with the company's wine and still allow the use of Produced and Bottled by so-and-ao winery. If you don't see Produced, you'll see Made and Bottled by, or Vinted and Nottled by, or Cellared and Bottled by so-and-so.
    Since it's cheaper to buy bulk wine than actually to produce wine from grapes, once the percentage of blended wine exceeds 25%, it's likwely to go way down, even to zero. In those cases, the taste -- and checkbook -- of the wine buyer, whose purchases wind up in the bottle with the buyer's label, determine the quality of your wine -- but you don't kinow who actually produced the wijne.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 3:57 PM


  • Snooth User: StevenBabb
    Hand of Snooth
    296258 483

    i often look to the back for any information to help guide me through a wine that i have yet too taste.... more often than not, i'm left with nothing.... just another excuse for me to try and TASTE EVERYTHING! : )

    one of my favorite labels, for pure entertainment, is the label on 7 Deadly Zins from Lodi, CA.... first it's a play on the 7 Deadly Sins, and they chose grapes from seven vineyards.... on the back label, it continues with vino reference to all of the deadly sins... you should really check out the website to get the full effect of the labeling, but here is what it says....


    Schulenburg's vines, grubby with GREED,
    Embrace Lodi's soil, to drink and to feed.
    Oh Lord, forgive me my zin.
    Secure in it's strength, weathered with PRIDE,
    Standing like soldiers, the forest of Snyde.
    Oh Lord, forgive me my zin.
    Hearts filled with LUST, ole Maley's trees.
    Court Lodi's sun, and flirt with it's breeze.
    Oh Lord, forgive me my zin.
    Good Bishofberger did raise some GLUTTONOUS beast,
    Vines fattened like turkeys before Thanksgiving feast.
    Oh Lord, forgive me my zin.
    With the tilt of the glass, I commit seven zins,
    Oh Lord, with your help... I'll do it again.
    Indulge!


    and to top it off, it's a pretty decent zin in the $12-14 range, and great conversation to bring to a dinner party!

    Jul 21, 2010 at 4:17 PM


  • Snooth User: Soulkeeper
    194063 10

    All this started to make sense to me when I started making my own wines. I was a bit of learning curve, and it is labor intensive, but the rewards are worth it.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 4:25 PM


  • Love, love, love when wine branding and lingo tells a story...we're seeing "Red table wine" on the back of bottles way too often (snore). Such a missed opportunity! Done well, wine labels can be such a part of the experience...and one might even spend a little more for that experience (?) Great info...thanks!

    Jul 21, 2010 at 5:03 PM


  • Snooth User: RemyMartin
    501667 13

    Interesting, but I just look for a key word like 'full bodied' which is my favorite bit of information. If it states or suggests anything less than full bodied or some equivalent than probably no go...........

    Jul 21, 2010 at 5:49 PM


  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    Would be a huge help for us wine makers and wine producers or whatever you want to call us... if you, the wine buying public, could tell us what you are looking for on the back label.
    I am finding myself with all kinds of options and information that I find interesting for a wine buyer to know but not all fits and some things will probably most boring to others.
    It is great to have a lot of info on the product you ar ebuying but what is it that actually makes you buy the wine.
    As a vineyard owner I am looking for information like when the harvest was, how it was picked and if it was thrown into 300Kilo bins or collected on a truck or collected and transported in 20kilo bins. I like to know how long it was in what type barrels, if the grapes were hand selected, how the yield was cut to get the best quality into the grapes.
    But I also hear a lot of buyers who are not interested in most of the info stated that I like, and they are looking for wine descriptions, including what tastes you should pickup in the wine. Serving temperatures for this particular wine etc.

    It is a tough call what you put in the back, this is why there are all kinds. I still don't know where I am going with the label I am doing right now. I think we will go with a full detailed description of the particular wine on the website but then that does not do you any good if you are standing in a liquor store having to pick from 500 different wines.
    ":)

    Jul 21, 2010 at 7:02 PM


  • To Gavilan: I too am one of those people who are looking for what tastes I should be picking up in the wines. However, I do like a little bit of 'history' age of vines, etc. If there's any story at all, it's always fun to read.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 7:23 PM


  • Appellation, age of vines and percentages of each grape listed would be great to have as well as a short tasting description. Geeky stuff like clones numbers can be fun, but I'd rather know about how much oak the wine has seen, for how long and what kind.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 7:59 PM


  • Snooth User: Gavilan Vineyards
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    517320 40

    To YourLifeVents:
    thanks. I will certainly take this into consideration. I always thought the balance between taste and history is the best approach but then I can never trust myself since my perspective is somewhat bias.

    To BigWoosSpoon:
    excellent answer as well. Not quite sure how it is handled in the US but here in Argentina we have somewhat strict regulations on varietal descriptions. You have to disclose them and cannot call a Cabernet Cabernet if it has a blend with other grapes. It has to be 85% true. The problem here with 100% is that the way vineyards were planted years ago is not based on an export oriented market but based on a domestic market that for hundreds of years has been a table wine market. For the past 20 years we are transforming the vineyards into export demands, which is fine grapes with 100% true varietals.

    One of the things in general that I periodically run into is that we have people that do not understand the different woods. For example our Bonarda gets the best flavor from mixing barrels between American and French oak. In the 2009 we had a 50-50 mix, with the 2010 we are doing a predominantly American Oak mix. Medium and Medium Plus toasted. I have heard a lot of comments that people think that French oak is the better wood. The truth is, it is not. It is for certain wines. Cabernet ages great in French oak while Bonarda is too sweat and rich and needs the harsher American oak to get a nice balanced taste.

    You are making a very fine point though. HOW MUCH oak. I see so many wineries that call their wines 'roble' or 'oak aged' and when you dig deep you find out that they had the wine in barrels for 3 months and the oka vs tank mix was...30% barrel and 70% tank. It always disappoints me and I feel cheated to pay the extra $$$ for the oak only to find that I did not really get what I paid for.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 10:00 PM


  • Having spent more than a decade in the wine industry I am always pleased when someone tries to demystify wine speak for the masses. You have done a good job here. Many try to translate it, but it somehow goes through latin, french, and scientific terminology to get there. By the time its been deciphered the consumer is either asleep or wishing they were.

    Keep up the good work.

    Matt

    Jul 21, 2010 at 10:26 PM


  • Snooth User: Isabee
    536592 4

    This is quite an easy-read article for those who just learning the ins and outs of wine.

    Jul 21, 2010 at 11:10 PM


  • that great article to read specially for me because I'm new to wines.its very informative and I'm looking forward for next article.

    Jul 22, 2010 at 4:32 AM


  • But what do you do when the label is all in Italian? I recommend drinking it!!

    A tip on French wines. A few have a little badge of a unisex figure carrying a barrel. These are always excellent examples of their grape varieties and terroir. It turns out they are "Vignerons Independents" made by smaller growers in the traditional way.

    I also like imbottigliato nella azienda agricola on italian wines, meaning its bottled on our farm/co-op. And Vin D'issus raisins biologique on French (organic)

    Jul 22, 2010 at 4:54 AM


  • Thanks for a great article and a great forum for informative responses. The mix of comments is what makes Snooth great for a novice like me.

    Jul 22, 2010 at 7:52 AM


  • Snooth User: JimScott
    196795 5

    Thanks. This helped quite a bit to understand what they are saying!

    Jul 22, 2010 at 11:33 AM


  • Snooth User: StevenBabb
    Hand of Snooth
    296258 483

    it would be helpful for me as a consumer/retailer/bartender to see a few key points on the back.... (and these are basic, a back story or history is always welcome)

    a quick tasting note... body?.... finish?....

    chardonnay- oak vs stainless.... malolactic fermentation?

    what grapes were used, and % of each varietal....

    anything else, i would just have to find out for myself..... but when i'm staring at a sea of chardonnay, a few helpful hints can go a long way...

    @Isabee.... Greg Dal Piaz does an excellent job writing articles and reviews, always an "easy read" and very informative. : )


    Jul 22, 2010 at 1:34 PM


  • Great article! Thanks for deciphering the vino-glyphics! I tend to prefer more info about the wine, and wine-making process, than less info. Then again, I'm also guilty of purchasing wines merely because of the label or story (aka 7 Deadly Zins).

    Jul 22, 2010 at 2:16 PM


  • Snooth User: RemyMartin
    501667 13

    To Gavilan, the primary reason I will pick one wine over a like wine in the same price category is how the wine is described meaning, full bodied or medium to full and not much else will do........ light and whimsical will not get my $$$. Oak is also important to me, if the oak overrides all else than I have no interest in the wine. One thing for sure, whatever is printed on the label I will read in its entirety....... Thanks for asking, R & R

    Jul 22, 2010 at 5:21 PM


  • For our hard working wine grower at Gavilan Vineyards. I like Remy Martin's comment. Good websites with descriptions as you want them with a wino's dictionary would help. I'm the last guy to push for standardization but some of the loose language used by US wine makers is appalling. Vinters Reserve, on $3 dollar a bottle. Oh please!!!
    Thanks for your hard work. As an "OKIE" born and raised in NE Oklahoma I truly appreciate the work of our sons and daughters of the soil. "And the land we belong to is grand". Oops, GO SOONERS!

    Jul 22, 2010 at 6:30 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 213,760

    Hey everyone. Sorry for not getting back here sooner but I've been on the road, and delayed almost everywhere I've been, keeping my access to the internets limited. Thanks for the kind words, I am thrilled to know that I'm helping people learn more about the wines they buy, and ultimately am making it easier for you to find the wines you love.

    I'm loving the feedback, think it's incredible that we've started a dialog with a winemaker about his backlabel! 'll be following this up with the second half of the label, of course, but then look out for additional Wine Words email to follow!

    Jul 23, 2010 at 10:11 AM


  • Snooth User: kauri
    135090 6

    Very interesting article and replies.

    I do wine demonstration work in supermarkets and wine stores in New Zealand. Some of the most frequently asked questions revolve around the extent of oaking. Some people just don't like oak or react to it food sensitivity wise (or so they say). Others like or love oak and are simply not interested in lightly oaked or nil oaked wine.

    Another one is the level of sweetness. People want to know approximately how sweet/dry a wine is. I appreciate that displaying the residual sugar figure is not the whole answer but some guide from the winemaker/producer on the back label would really assist a lot of people.
    Some basic guidance on relevant/ typical food matches and serving temperature is also relevant.

    Too many people serve their Sauvignon Blancs (New Zealand) style straight out of the fridge at 3 or 4 degrees Celcius, which in my opinion, is too cold and does not allow the wine to show its true smell and flavour.
    I know too that Kiwis (New Zealanders) often drink their reds too cold and so never really get to appreciate the true smell and flavour of some wonderful wines.
    For example with a 15% alcohol Barossa Valley Shiraz tasted in recent days I have stressed to people that the wine is : NOT a quaffer, and needs to be drunk at the right temperature out of a decent glass and sitting down! and ideally with gutsy food. Most prospective buyers are amused by this line but I tell them I am serious and I am.

    Jul 24, 2010 at 10:13 PM


  • You can get an excellent education on winemaking terms from visiting an online winemaking forum. I've been making kit wines for a year or so and I already know what the various terms mean. In addition, I've come across many varietals that I hadn't heard of and typically I research a bit and then find a commercial example before buying a kit.

    Aug 04, 2010 at 5:23 PM


  • Check this breakdown of a wine label by winemaker Lise Ciolino.
    http://bit.ly/irXN3x

    May 28, 2011 at 3:14 PM


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