Window Into Wine
Deciphering the Wine Label
Whether it’s local wine, craft beer or fine cuisine, these bourgeoning industries are always benefited by producers and consumers developing a broader understanding of the product. In other words: Education. East Coast residents have come a long way in aiding the growth of these industries through knowledge and general interest, and yet there are still many common misconceptions about wine and how it is made and marketed that hamper the progress of East Coast wine promotion. To understand more about what’s in the bottle, what better place to start than what’s on the bottle.
We all know what it’s like to walk into a wine store and feel a little overwhelmed by the choices. Maybe your original goal was to try something new, but then the eight-syllable hyphenated French classifications and various ranches of Napa start to blur together, and you end up just grabbing your regular go-to Cab. As you may already know, there are two main styles of wine labeling, largely considered Old World vs. New World. European wines will rarely tell you the grape varietal of the wine, so it is up to you to become familiar with which regions (Bordeaux, Rioja, Piemonte, etc.) produce what kind of wine, and furthermore which sub-regions and specific producers or “Chateaus” you prefer. It is then up to the buyer to become familiar with what kind of wine is made in which region to know what each bottle contains, although a few French and several Spanish and Italian producers are moving toward a more modern style. New World wines (anything not from the original Western European regions) will generally state the grape or the name of the blend right on the front label, and may often provide additional varietal information or tasting notes on the back.
Another common source of label confusion is the designation of "Estate" wines. In general, if a wine is labeled "Estate," that usually means that the grapes used are grown in vineyards owned by the winery within a certain distance from the production site. It gets tricky, however, because the bottle may not say "Estate" for this to be the case. Many smaller production wineries exclusively use their own estate-grown fruit, but may not advertise as such on their labels. I always recommend visiting a winery's website to find out more about where they are getting their grapes.
Many larger production wineries may have several acres of their own estate vineyards and then source the rest of their grapes from neighboring growers, and then will often produce a separate smaller batch solely from estate grapes that may go into a special reserve bottling. However, non-estate wine does not always mean it is lower quality. There are many excellent winemaking operations that carefully choose only the best vineyards to source from and have developed close simbiotic relationships with specific growers. Just as some of the best vineyard owners don't make wine at all, some great wineries don't own any vines and still manage to produce world-class wine.
If a winery is not diligent in its involvement with a source vineyard during the growing season, they may end up with some unpleasant surprises come harvest time that will negatively affect the quality of their wine. However, there are many highly respected winemakers that have long-running relationships with the vineyards they source from and are well versed in the importance of communication between winery and growers. Many of the most prestigious wineries in the country buy grapes from several different vineyards, all with premier growing sites and acclaimed viticulturalists. When it comes time for production, wineries often keep grapes from specific vineyards separate through the fermentation and aging process. Then, when it’s time to blend, each barrel is tasted and assessed; here, the winemaker may set aside a few barrels that are most expressive of a specific vineyard’s terroir to be bottled as a “single vineyard” release.
For example, Oregon is famous for it’s Pinot Noir and cool climate white wines that come from the Willamette Valley. Then the greater Willamette wine region is separated into more specialized AVA designations that group together topographical areas with comparable climate and soil composition. Beyond that, there are many specific vineyards that are renowned for the caliber of their particular site. If a wine is made from grapes that came from several places throughout the valley, the bottle will then only be a general “Willamette Valley” designation; others some may specify, for example, the Dundee Hills AVA and may showcase characterstics of its particular soil type, or even further, state the exact name of the Vineyard that it came from (i.e. Temperance Hill, Palmer Creek, Stoller, Bryan Creek, etc.).
This somewhat parallels the traditional European system of classification, where a Pinot Noir from France may not only tell you it is a Bourgogne, but also from the Côte de Nuits region, and furthermore from the Grand Crus vineyards of Romanée-Conti. In France (and paralleled throughout Europe), the Appellation d'origine contrôlée laws decided long ago which wines deserve the most prestigious title of Grand Crus, which may be called Premier Crus, which may only use the “village” name, and which are merely to be considered generic Bourgogne. The New World regions are young enough that this kind of quality distinction is not so set in stone, and therefore it is up to you to read, taste, and decide which wines stand out in the ever-growing pack.
Caroline Jackson now works for Chehalem Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She has a degree in English and a background in East Coast wine sales and winemaking. Visit her blog, Sips and Sounds, which pairs daily music selections with a wine or craft beer.