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Label can help avoid taste roulette

If you want to know about a product before purchasing, it seems simple enough, just read the label.

At least it should seem simple considering many of us have become adept at deciphering labels of every other product on the retail shelf, checking calorie, fat and fiber content and ingredients. But when it comes to wine, particularly when you just want to know how the wine will taste, it isn’t that simple.

The required information on the label really doesn’t give us much useful information other than alcohol content, size of the bottle (which is rather obvious) and the importer’s address, which is helpful only if you intend to send them a letter. So where does it leave the consumer as we search out the actual taste of a wine?

Front labels generally contain strictly regulated, straightforward information (even the size of the type is regulated) and include the country of origin, grape variety, the name of the winery and alcohol content.

To learn more, take a quick look at the back label. In addition to the required government warnings about wine consumption during pregnancy, machinery use and overall health, you may be surprised how many producers are genuinely interested in telling you a little more. It can vary from background about the vineyard, vintage conditions to even food pairing advice. Look for labels that describe the level of sweetness and flavors inside the bottle.

But if you come across a bottle that doesn’t contain any of this information, there are clues to taste.

First, familiarize yourself with a few key grapes and regions.

Grapes, like apples and oranges, excel in certain growing regions of the world. It’s not often you see oranges growing in Maine, the same is true for cabernet sauvignon in Germany. Put to memory a few of the benchmark regions such as New Zealand sauvignon blanc, California zinfandel, Bordeaux and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, Italian pinot grigio, Burgundy pinot noir and German Riesling.

If you’re seeking sweet or dry wines, there are clues here, too. Other than dessert wines, ports, sauternes, sherry and a few others, most table wines are dry. If you are looking for slightly sweet wines look for German Rieslings, American white zinfandel and some French gewurztraminers.

So armed with a little knowledge, buying a bottle doesn’t have to be a game of taste roulette.

Labels hold lots of clues to origin

Often the intimidation many wine drinkers encounter can be linked to confusing labels. This is understandable when you consider wine labels can include confusing classifications, town names and unfamiliar producers.

In the United States, wine falls under the regulation of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which regulates its labeling. The bureau reviews more than 100,000 wine labels each year to ensure that consumers get adequate information. Investigators also routinely confirm that industry members are following labeling and production standards.

American wine labels tend to be easier to understand, with more direct wording on the label than European labels. And U.S. labeling is even more straightforward when you better understand what is being regulated.

On U.S. labels the word “Reserve,” unlike in other countries, does not have a specific meaning. It can refer to a winery’s favorite vineyard, the use of barrel aging or even a special bottling from the winemaker.

“Estate Bottled,” unlike “reserve,” has a specific meaning. “Estate Bottled” means 100 percent of the wine came from grapes grown on land owned by the winery. The winery must also crush, ferment, finish, age and bottle the wine on the premises.

The “Appellation of Origin” refers to the place in which the grapes used in the wine were grown. It can be a state, county or viticulture area. If it is a country, state or county, at least 75 percent of the wine must be produced from grapes grown in the place named.

An “American Viticulture Area” (AVA) is a region in the United States with features that set it apart from other growing areas. Usually soil, climate and aspect are considerations when adding AVA designations. These appellations must use 85 percent or more grapes grown in the growing area. Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley and Willamette Valley are examples of American Viticulture Areas.

Wine labels will generally list the dominant grape used in the wine. For example, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon or merlot. If the winery uses the grape name, it means at least 75 percent of the grapes used to make the wine are from that variety, and 75 percent were grown in the appellation listed on the label. However, labels are not required to list the dominant grape, so many wineries use a more broad listing of “red,” “white” or “table” wine.

When you see “vintage” or year the wine was bottled, if the label uses a state or county as an appellation of origin (where the grapes were grown) then 85 percent of the grapes must be from that year, but when using a specific viticultural area the percentage is raised to 95 percent.

Bottle, like book, can be judged by cover

It seems simple, look at the wine label to get an idea of what to expect after opening the bottle. After all, most of us have become well-versed in label deciphering — calories, fat grams, organic content and so forth. But sometimes with wine, labels can be intimidating.

European wines have a reputation for difficult-to-interpret labels. Unless you lived in the region or were an expert, you’d often need to grab a copy of Oxford Companion just to understand the label.

But this is changing. Many export-minded European wineries are now making labels easier to decode. I recently bought a French wine listing the grape variety, food pairing ideas and even sweetness level — quite refreshing to those of us simply seeking a pleasant bottle of wine for dinner.

To make decoding wine labels easier, I like to think of the bottle as a book. The front label is similar to a book’s edition page: it tells the wine’s name (title), the producer (author), what grapes are used to make the wine (fiction, nonfiction category) and year it was bottled (published). If you look closer, it also offers specifics as to who bottled the wine (publisher), alcohol content (not recommended for children) and even who was the importer (translator). The label offers straightforward information, mainly because it is governed by strict regulations (even the font size of the alcohol percentage).

The back label is like reading the inside flap or back of a book. This is typically a sales pitch to get you to try the wine (or read the book). It may describe what the wine tastes like, recommend food pairings or contain whimsical information about UFOs, a vineyard dog or poetry.

The following are just a few straightforward and easy reads in your local wine shops.

THE VALUES

  • 2006 Concha Y Toro Xplorador Chardonnay, Chile (about $10 retail)
  • 2007 Penfolds Rawson’s Retreat Chardonnay, Australia (about $10 retail)
  • 2006 Cline Cellars Zinfandel, California (about $12 retail)

THE SPLURGES

  • 2006 Greg Norman Estates Shiraz, Australia (about $22 retail)
  • 2007 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $28 retail)