Wine labels can be straight-forward or fairly tricky to decipher, depending on whose you're trying to read and where it's from. New World labels tend to be easier to read, with the varietal or blend clearly labeled, the producer, where the grapes were grown and the alcohol content right there in plain view. Old World wines have a reputation for being tougher to interpret. Instead of the varietal being the primary piece of information on the Old World label, it is the location - where the wine is from. Old World wines are heavily invested in their individual terroir, not necessarily the specific grape.
Label owned by Blackstone Winery
New World wine labels are pretty user friendly, offering consumers a few key pieces of wine buying information. The varietal is listed on the label, making for less guesswork than many Old World labels. The producer, varietal, vintage year, region where grapes are grown, and alcohol content typically appear on the front label. The back label sports the government warning, "According to the Surgeon General..." and the sulfite statement along with some witty wine wisdom and pairing preferences for the particular wine.
Alsatian wine labels tend to be easier on the New World consumer, as they are the one French wine region that habitually states the wine’s grape varietal directly on the front label. These labels are a good place to start easing into Old World label decoding, because they provide a "hybrid" of Old World and New World labeling strategies. The detective work is significantly reduced as consumers conquer the label offerings in record time, but easy label deciphering aside, the majority of Alsatian Rieslings need little help in convincing consumers to give them a go. Alsace has an international reputation for producing tip top Rieslings at consumer-friendly price points - this particular Lucien Albrecht Riesling is no exception.
This label is from Burgundy (right corner “Vin de Bourgogne,” meaning “Wine of Burgundy”). In Burgundy there are two wines to know: Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and White Burgundy (Chardonnay). This label represents a white wine from Burgundy, which we figure out from bottle and label clues. The bottle will have the sloped shoulder style that is typically found in white wines. Next, the appellation in Burgundy is Macon-Villages (known for white Burgundy wines, aka Chardonnay). The estate where the grapes are from is "Domaine Champ de Brulee." The wine's producer is Vincent and the bottling information is at the label's bottom. So, we know this wine is a Chardonnay from Burgundy produced by JJ Vincent in 2003 with an alcohol content of 12.5%.
The vast majority of German wines are Rieslings, and for good reason. Germany has been setting the traditional standard for the Riesling grape for centuries. The German wine label includes the basic information found on most other labels: producer, region, vintage, vineyard, varietal, and the like, but they throw a curve when the ripeness levels, sugar levels and quality classifications also grace the label. The quality classification starts off with the basic table wine, "Tafelwein" and proceeds to a level 5 designation of "Qualitätsweine mit Prädikat" (QmP) - translated to "Quality wine with attributes."
For those that don't speak Italian, wine labels from Italy can be daunting, until you know a few essential label clues. The primary pieces of information that Italian wines want to communicate to you, their celebrated consumer, are the wine's: Name, Growing Region (There are 37 designated wine growing regions in Italy), Grape Type (Italy has over 2,000!), Estate and Producer Names, Alcohol Content, Vintage Year and Classification (Vdt, IGT, DOC, DOCG - government appellation designations related to volume, location and quality). If you can grab these key pieces of information off of an Italian wine label then you are good to go.