Labels play an important role in the wine world. Beyond the obvious function of attracting attention and distinguishing a wine from its competitors, they also provide vital product information and are a basic legal requirement. Understanding wine labels is not always easy. While some countries keep their labels relatively simple and straightforward, others have complex and highly communicative wine labeling traditions, as illustrated by the example below (from Austria).
Wine Labeling Laws
Each wine-producing country has its own laws about what must (and what must not) appear on its wine labels, and on those of imported wines. The most obvious information on a typical wine label is its producer or brand name, region of origin, vintage, and often the grape variety or blend the wine is made from. Beyond that, almost every country requires labels to state the producer's location, the bottle's volume, the wine's alcohol content and whether it contains allergens (particularly sulfites).
Wine Label Vocabulary
Wine labels tread a fine line between marketing needs and legal requirements; they must be attractive, communicative and compliant all at the same time. To ensure some level of consistency, the wine world uses a well-developed set of concepts, terms and phrases for its labels. Most wine labeling terms are officially defined and carefully controlled. These relate to simple ideas, such as grape variety names, but also to very complex concepts such as the pr?dikat system (see German Wine Labels).
Wine lawmakers go to great lengths to distinguish between similar-sounding words, with the goal of keeping consumers informed about what kind of wine is inside the bottle (although how successful they are is a matter of much debate). There is a small but significant difference, for example, between Barossa and Barossa Valley, and a big difference between Montepulciano (a grape variety) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (a wine from the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany).
Some wine labeling terms are not legally defined, however. 'Old Vines' and its French form Vieilles Vignes, for example, have no legal definition. Their meaning relies entirely on traditional usage, and is regulated only by market forces (i.e. consumer perceptions). But there is an entire lexicon of terms which are officially, legally defined.
Quality and Classifications
The two most important aspects of any wine-buying decision are price and quality. While prices can be communicated simply and accurately using numbers, reliably indicating quality is far from simple. Consumers often use brand names as a gauge of quality, but this is far from ideal; brand quality can fluctuate significantly over time, and brand-positive perception can be generated by investing in marketing rather than winemaking. This is why wine law-makers, particularly those in Europe, work so hard to devise ways of objectively distinguishing high-quality wines from low-quality wines (see EU Wine Labels). One of the world's earliest wine classifications focused exclusively on the wines of Bordeaux, ranking their quality as it stood in 1855 (see 1855 Medoc Classification). Seventy-five years later, France introduced its nationwide appellation contr?lée classification system, on which other European countries have modeled their wine laws.
Regions, Appellations, Indications and Designations
A wine's origin is a key part of its identity, as it implies something about its style and likely quality. Many thousands of official placenames are used on the world's wine labels. Some of these indicate only the wine's origin, while others combine origin, style and quality all into one.
Examples of the first include the United States' AVA (American Viticultural Area), Australia's GI (Geographical Indication) and South Africa's WO (Wine of Origin).
Examples of the second are found mostly in Europe, and are most famously exemplified by France's Appellation d'Origine Contr?lée (AOC), which provided the model for Italy's Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), Spain's Denominación de Origen (DO) and more recently Austria's Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC). There are roughly 300 French AOC titles, each of which communicates not just the geographical origins of its wines, but also their approximate style and quality. Labeling a wine as 'Bourgogne Rouge', for example, confirms both that it was made in Burgundy and that it is a dry, medium-bodied red made predominantly from Pinot Noir. It also indicates that the wine is of good quality, but is probably not as fine as a Premier Cru or Grand Cru wine.
Varieties and Varietals
Some wines, particularly those in the New World, show their grape variety or blend on the front label, as if part of their name. Under the laws of most wine-producing countries, this means that at least 85% of the wine inside is made from the stated variety or varieties. In response to consumer demand for such varietal labeling, the practice is now increasingly common in Europe, although the majority of French appellations actively forbid the mention of grape varieties on front labels. Spain, Portugal, and particularly Italy, are moving steadily towards varietal labeling and winemaking.