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Wine Review: Why you should read the label

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If you are anything like most wine lovers, you often head toward a label that you are familiar with, a label that looks interesting, a name that might intrigue you or one that your brother-in-law recommended.

If this is so, I can assume that at some time you must have purchased wines that were not what you expected or that you just didn’t like. Very few wine buyers ever look past the name or variety of a wine, and they may miss the mass of information that can be found on that often-overlooked little piece of paper, the label on the back of the bottle.

Federal law and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives dictates what must be on a wine label, whether the wines are domestic or foreign. By law, bottles of wine to be sold in the United States must show a brand name, wine type, alcohol content, bottle volume, sulfite content as a warning to people who may have sulfite allergies, and the mandatory sentence called the government warning, which indicates all of the maladies or misfortunes that may befall you if you drink the wine.

There often are other things on the back label to indicate what is inside the bottle. Is the wine sparkling or just petulant (slightly bubbly)? Is the wine sweet or dry? Does the wine have too little or too much alcohol? It is a fact that many restaurants prefer not to sell pinot noir wines that are over 14% alcohol.

That information can be found on the back label, which often reads like a mystery novel if you cannot translate, decipher or understand what is there. The sweetness, too, often is listed there but in terms that the average wine drinker might not understand unless they’re a chemist, i.e., grams of sugar per liter of wine.

Occasionally, the vintage of the wine also may be listed on the back label when not listed on the decorative, attention-grabbing front label. At times, even the country of origin and vintage date are held for the back label along with a description of what type of grapes were used to make that wine.

Another bit of information that is often on the back label is whether the wine is vegan. That question is not as simple or ridiculous as it may seem. Many wines, most specifically foreign wines, are cleared with egg whites, isinglass (derived from fish bladders) or some other animal-derived clarifiers, making it a sure no-no for vegans or orthodox vegetarians. There often is information on the growing of the grapes, such as if they were grown by the currently popular organic method and occasionally a comment by the winemaker on the growing season of that particular vintage.

However, there is still more. A contact email address or even the winery's phone number can often be found there along with a short sentence about the people who produced the wine. All of this information can be useful if you are not familiar with the winery or the wine variety or you wish to know where the grapes came from.

I hope that this information has proven useful to you. With prices on the rise, an unfamiliarity with the producer or the type of wine within the bottle may cause the consumer to bypass some excellent wines even if they are at an attractive price.

We all know that all of the labels in the world cannot tell you what is in the bottle, but, by turning the bottle around and reading that often-overlooked back label, consumers just might open new vistas of wine enjoyment and perhaps even avoid disappointment.

Wine columnist Bennet Bodenstein can be reached at


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