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Wine labels

by George Balling
| June 16, 2010 9:00 PM

One of the most consistent and at times surprising phenomena of the wine business is how much a great label contributes to the sales volume of any bottle of wine. While we interact with just about everyone who comes into our shop and talk to them about their likes and dislikes in wine, at the end of the day a good label always sells more than a poorly designed one. In addition to good art and graphics though, there is a great deal of information on a label that will help you select a wine more to your taste.

First off is the vintage of the wine or the year the grapes were grown and the wine created. Most wines are vintage dated although there are more and more non-vintage wines being sold that bear the NV designation on the label. In order to have a vintage designation on the bottle, 95 percent of the grapes must come from that year. When it comes to vintages it is easier to know which are not so good as opposed to the ones that are great. There is simply less to remember by knowing what years to avoid. As we have talked about recently though a year worth seeking out is the 2007 vintage, it is spectacular for wines from North America and many European appellations also.

Also every bottle of wine sold must show the alcohol level of the wine which is expressed in a percentage. While many will joke that "the more the better" this is not necessarily true. Many of us prefer lighter body and lower alcohol wines for the taste, rather than the effects of higher alcohol. While most wines manufactured in the United States run between 13.5 percent and 15 percent alcohol there are many that run above 16 percent, which to me seems over the top, literally. European wines, because of their more conservative approach to winemaking and desire for a higher acid in the wines to make them more food friendly, typically run below 14 percent. Here in the states the actual level of alcohol can be plus or minus .5 percent from what is stated on the label. This is a legal window created because the alcohol level can change between the time the label is approved by the alcohol bureau and when the wine completes fermentation. The important thing though is to pay attention to which wines you like more and what the alcohol level is.

Most bottles are also designated with an appellation or area of origin for the grapes, in Italy it is referred to as a DOC. In the United States appellations that were initially laid down were very large; subsequently as the wine industry grew, smaller appellations were created within the larger ones. The Sonoma Coast appellation in California is a great example of this. It runs from the Mendocino County line in the north to the south end of Sonoma County and then east encompassing part of Napa County, all in all pretty meaningless when considering the multitude of grape growing regions within it. Since it was originally created there have been many smaller appellations created including, Sonoma Valley, Carneros, the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley and more. At the risk of being redundant, you want to pay attention to the appellation for the wines you like and explore those areas more deeply by trying other wines from that area.

A similar pattern was created in Washington state with the original creation of the Columbia Valley appellation and later the designation of Red Mountain, and Horse Heaven Hills to name a couple.

Some bottles will additionally carry a vineyard designation. These wines are typically more expensive but also more expressive of the growing and soil conditions, or terroir, of that vineyard. To have a vineyard designation 100 percent of the grapes must come from that vineyard.

Finally, many bottles will have the varietal listed on the label like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. In order to list the varietal the wine must contain at least 75 percent of that varietal, the remaining grapes used and percentages need not be disclosed though many winemakers will put the blend on the back label. Blending in my opinion is the hallmark of a great winemaker. When winemakers blend, they are attempting to accentuate the best qualities of their wine and mitigate the less desirable ones.

In parts of Europe you will need to know what varietal grows in a specific area as the wines are identified by region and not varietal. As an example red Burgundy is always Pinot Noir while white Burgundy is Chardonnay. There are five red grapes grown in Bordeaux with the largest being Cabernet Sauvignon. Tuscany and specifically Brunello di Montalcino are dominated by Sangiovese as far as red grapes.

The key for wine consumers with labels is to know the information contained on the label to better identify wines you will consistently like, and of course if you like the label art it doesn't hurt either!

If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can e-mail George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d'Alene Press.

George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party - a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d'Alene. Information: www.thedinnerpartyshop.com

Correction: In last week's article on Wine and the Movies I incorrectly stated that Heidi Barrett winemaker for Screaming Eagle and other wines had the first name of Holly. I apologize to Ms. Barrett and our readers for the inaccuracy.

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