Which wine? How to read information on back of bottle

How to Drink Better: Wine labels can be impossible to understand but they can provide useful details

Read the label to discover all you can about the wine before you buy it. Photograph: iStock

Q. What can you find out by carefully reading the label on a bottle of wine?

A. Many people find wine labels impossible to understand. Yet the label can provide useful information as to how and when your wine was made, and where it comes from. It can also be full of marketing jargon and images designed to entice you.

Legally, the front label must have the following information:

Alcohol content: A producer must state the amount of alcohol in a wine, expressed as a percentage of alcohol by volume. Wine can be .5 per cent higher or lower than stated on the label. Most wine is between 11.5 per cent and 15 per cent.


Bottler: A label must give details of the company responsible for bottling the wine. This is often expressed as a number registered with the EU.

Contents: The label must state the amount of wine in the bottle, the standard size is 75cl.

Country of origin: Many producers put this information on the back label, allowing them full artistic rein on the front label.

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Labels will usually give you the vintage (the year the grapes were picked) and sometimes the grape variety. In general southern hemisphere countries and California are better at this; European wines tend to stress geographical origin. It is worth remembering your favourite grape varieties and trying out other examples from different regions and countries.

In the EU wine is divided into three categories indicating the area where the grapes are grown and sometimes the grape varieties used. Some of these, such as Rioja or Bordeaux, are well known. Others are less familiar. Italy has more than 300 DOCs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or quality wine designations and more than 500 permitted grape varieties. It would be a brave person who claims to know them all.

Many wines, usually from smaller producers, will give you the name of the village or commune, as well as the estate and the person responsible for growing the grapes and making the wine. Some will even print the exact field the grapes were grown in, surely the ultimate in “field to fork” – or vineyard to glass.

Some regions have designated superior vineyards as Grand Cru or Premier Cru, or an equivalent in other countries. These will usually be more expensive and should be better quality wines, although some regions, such as Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux have more Grand Cru vineyards than normal. The words Reserva or Gran Reserva often appear on the label. In Spain this indicates how long the wine has been aged in oak barrels and is usually an indicator of quality. In most other countries, including France and Chile, the phrase has little or no meaning at all.

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Producers sometimes fine or filter their wines with egg whites, casein, gelatin and isinglass, so it does mean something if a wine has vegan or vegetarian on the label.

Some labels will have calories, units of alcohol per glass, serving temperature, food matches, and a tasting note, all potentially useful information.

If a wine is certified organic, it will have a small green leaf symbol on the label.

Almost as important as what is printed on the label is what is not. Under EU legislation a producer doesn’t have to list any of the additives (other than sulphites and all wines contain sulphites) and treatments used in making the wine. We love to think that wine is natural; in fact there are no less than 59 additives or treatments permitted in the EU – and 76 in the US. I suspect we will see ingredient listing in the future, although many producers are understandably opposed.