The first imperative for the smart wine buyer is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff on the content of wine bottle labels, back and front. Reading the label seems elementary, but the key here is to go beyond the wine industry marketing terms such as “Special Reserve” or “Estate Bottled,” which mean nothing, and look at the information that the producer is required by law to include on the wine label.
Think of this information as similar to the nutritional labels on cereal boxes. The nutritional label is going tell you how much fat and how many calories there are per serving. It is not going to tell you whether the cereal will taste good or not.
Some red flags:
- The producer is a California winery, but the back label identifies the wine as being sourced from the Valle Central and is identified as “Product of Chile.” What it means: The producer is sourcing his grapes or wine (perhaps in the form of frozen concentrate) from the international wine market. Producer has likely searched for best price not best quality. Wine might be okay, but should be priced for what it is: plonk.*
- The wine’s alcohol content is considerably below the standard 12.5 percent. What it means: Alcohol content in wine is dependent on the sugar levels of the wine must (juice) before fermentation. Low alcohol could mean the use of unripe grapes or indicate that winemaker artificially stopped fermentation before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. This is often seen in sweet wines or cheap bubblies and may indicate an unbalanced wine with flabby fruit flavors.
- The wine has no vintage year on the label. What it means: For a wine label to show a vintage year on its label, 90 percent of the wine in the bottle must be from the same vintage. While buying wine by vintage requires knowledge of the quality of the growing seasons for individual wine regions, the lack of vintage year on the label indicates the producer is blending whatever is available at his price point. Again, the wine might be okay, but should be priced for what it is: plonk.*
*Plonk: British and Australian term for cheap wine of indifferent quality