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Wine Label Reading Tips

Grape Variety or Appellation

"Variety" refers to the type of grapes primarily used in the wine, and "appellation" refers to where the grapes were grown. New world wines made in North America, South America, Australia and Africa usually put the grape variety on their labels; for example, they may indicate the wine was made with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Wines from France usually have the appellation of origin on their labels, such as Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Loire region. In this case, you will need to know which kinds of grapes are grown in those regions to determine the flavor of the wine. In Burgundy, the grapes grown for red wine are Pinot Noir, while the grapes grown for white wine are Chardonnay.

Class

The class of wine refers to its general type, such as "class one," which is table wine, and "class two," which is sparkling wine. There are also citrus, aperitif, imitation and fruit wines. Table wine is the most common, and it may also be referred to as "light wine."

Alcohol Content

The alcohol content can be a good indicator of how sweet a wine is. Wine containing less than 11 percent alcohol tends to be sweeter, while wines containing 11 to 13.5 percent alcohol tend to be drier. If the alcohol content is above 13.5 percent, the flavor could go either way, because wineries often use sugar to take the edge off the taste of more ripe table wines with higher alcohol contents.

Vintage

The vintage of a wine refers to the year the grapes were harvested, which is important to consider for wines that are best aged for a certain length of time before drinking. Older isn't necessarily better. It's also good to know the vintage if the wine is produced in an area with fluctuating weather. A particularly harsh winter or an unseasonably warm fall will affect how the grapes ripen and the flavor of the wine produced.

Other Information

There are many other terms found on wine labels that do not tell you much about how the wine will taste. Reserve indicates extra aging time at the winery before the wine was released, but this is a common practice and does not indicate anything about flavor or quality. The name and address of the wine bottler is legally required on labels of wine sold in the U.S., but this usually does not affect taste, nor does the brand of wine necessarily indicate a higher quality or better flavor. Exceptions include established estates such as Chateau Latour, which are known for consistently producing distinctive wines.

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