Wine labels are often perceived as being complicated to understand. Here we have tried to demystify the terms and names by showing examples from a selection of key wine producing countries.
Labels are the first thing we see when looking at a wine bottle, and for many people (up to 71%, according to research) it’s the most important factor when deciding which bottle to buy. Do you prefer your Sauvignon Blanc to have butterflies, fish, stamps or walnuts? Or do you simply want it to glow in the dark ?
There’s a fair bit of technical information that has to be on wine labels, but it’s the overall design that’s likely to determine whether you like the look of a wine or not. Continue reading below to find out a bit more about what goes into making a wine label.
The following must appear on a label in a single field of vision (e.g., can be viewed without having to turn the bottle), except for the Importer’s details, the Lot number, and allergen statement.
Class/type of wine
Appellation of origin (e.g. AOC Champagne or DOC Rioja)
Country of origin (e.g. “Product of Chile”)
Nominal volume expression, with minimum size lettering (e.g. 75cl)
Alcohol content – to be shown in whole or half units e.g. 12%vol or 12.5%vol.
Bottler/producer information – name and address for an EU wine, producer AND importer for a Third Country wine.
Importer information – name and address, preceded by the word(s) “Importer” or “Imported by”
Allergen statement (e.g. “Contains sulphites”)
Lot identification with the marking preceded by the letter “L”.
Vintage year (at least 85% of the grapes used to make the product must have been harvested in the year in question)
Grape variety (Where one variety is shown, the wine must contain at least 85% of the named variety. Where two or more varieties are shown the wine must only contain those varieties and they must be shown in descending order.)
Allergen Labelling for Wine:
Allergen labelling rules apply to beverages containing more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol. Alcoholic beverages containing sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 parts per million (ppm) must be labelled “Contains sulphites”.
A new quality charter was issued by the EU in 2012 which comprised not just practices in the vineyard, but also in the cellar. Organic wines (and other organic products) can now show the official green leaf logo. Before then there had been no EU rules or definition of ‘Organic wine’: only grapes could be certified organic. So in older vintages, it was ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’ that appeared on wine labels. At Vintage Roots we believe organic wines need to be certified, and you will see an organic logo on our wine labels.
For organic wines, the rules on sulphites are also stricter and organic wines must contain 30-50% less added sulphur than ‘conventional’ wines, and with no use of certain additives such as sorbic acid. For example, dry red organic wines can contain 100ppm sulphur compared to 150ppm for their conventionally made equivalent. For a wine not to have the mandatory ‘contains sulphites’ warning on the label, it must contain under 10ppm.
The Wine Police
With the increasing need for more and more information on wine labels, and differing needs from country to country, we do sympathise with our producers with international markets, who have to continually make or re-print new label versions. There are high costs for small label print runs (under 5000) and this is why many choose just to alter and update back labels, whilst keeping the front label the same.
By the time you also fit on an organic certification symbol, possibly a vegetarian or vegan logo, a barcode and tasting description, amongst other things, it can become a tight squeeze! Most of us would not realise, but behind the scenes, all this regulation is being enforced and checked by a small band of hard working people from the ‘Wine Standards Board’. At Vintage Roots, we recently had one such visit. After a polite chit chat about our business, and browse through our Wine List, he asked to have a look round our warehouse and check some bottles more closely.
Well, you automatically feel quite guilty and worried, akin to going through a customs check at an airport. The fact of the matter is, the inspectors are short on time and resource and they are there for spot checks only, and usually on particular issues. For this year, one of the ‘issues’ was around allergen and sulphur/sulphite labelling, so when he came to our boxes of Emiliana – No Sulphur Added ‘Salvaje’ red wine from Chile, the reading glasses went on and close bottle scrutiny followed. After quite some time it was concluded that there was no mention of ‘contains sulphites’ on the label. Although this was no great surprise to us (it being No Sulphur Added) the law states that to have NO mention of ‘contains sulphites’ on a wine label, the actual content in the wine must be below 10 parts per million. There was only one way to check, and this was for the inspector to take three bottles away for chemical analysis – and to ‘freeze’ our stock, meaning that we were not to sell any more, until notification the analysis was positive. Three bottles in plastic sample bags were duly sealed with all details written on (yes three times!) and sent off to the laboratory.
Yes, a bit of a hassle and interruption for our business. In the end we had to wait close on two weeks for the result, which we are glad to say was positive. The wine contained just five parts per million sulphites and was therefore in the clear not to carry the allergen warning ‘contains sulphites’. As a business, we found it quite reassuring that these things are being checked. We have nothing to hide and know that at the same time mistakes can and do happen. We also know that there is a huge amount of fraud and misleading labelling going on out there, where the wine buying public are being misled and sometimes put in danger.
The European Union (EU) is the world’s largest wine economy, with roughly 70% of global production and 60% of global consumption. All 27 EU member states produce wine to some extent, and each has its own language, traditions and wine classifications. Maintaining consistency across the entire economic zone requires a set of overarching, EU-wide wine quality classifications and production laws. Until relatively recently, the EU classified wine quality into two categories: ‘QWPSR’ (Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region) and ‘Table Wine’. These were replaced in 2011 with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), as explained below.
The PDO and PGI logos in their English-language forms, with translations beneath:
PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) According to the EU definition, PDO products are “produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how”. Their quality and properties are significantly or exclusively determined by their environment, in both natural and human factors.
Each EU country has its own quality categories which correspond to PDO. Three of the most significant are;
France : AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée)
Italy: DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)
Spain: DO (Denominación de Origen) and DOCa (Denominación de Origen Calificada)
PGI (Protected Geographical Indication)
The EU definition of a PGI product is one closely linked to the geographical area in which it is produced, processed or prepared, and which has specific qualities attributable to that geographical area. (Cornish pasty is now a ‘PGI’).
Each EU country has its own quality categories which correspond to PGI. The most significant are:
France : VDP (Vin de Pays)
Italy: IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)
Spain : VT (Vino de la Tierra)
French Wine Label Information
France has a complex and well-established array of wine laws. Most of these apply nationally, but some are region-specific. Understanding French wine labels requires a basic knowledge of France’s wine terminology and laws. Below is an example label, and below that an explanation of French wine classifications.
The official tiers of French wine quality classification:
AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) indicates the geographical origin, quality and (generally) the style of a wine. For example, Burgundy’s regional AOC Bourgogne Blanc covers more than 300 communes, and denotes dry white wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris. By contrast, AOC Romanee-Conti Grand Cru covers just four acres of top-quality vineyard and denotes dry red wines made exclusively from Pinot Noir. The Europe-wide equivalent of AOC is AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). All Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines fall into the AOC category.
Grand Cru is the very highest classification of French wine. The term can refer to a wine in one of two ways, either a) the plot of land where the grapes are grown or b) the chateau at which the wine is made. The former applies most famously in Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne (but is also used in Languedoc and the Loire Valley). The latter is exclusive to Bordeaux.
Premier Cru denotes either 1) a vineyard plot (most often in Burgundy) of superior quality, or 2) the very highest tier within a Grand Cru classification (such as the ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé’ chateaux of Bordeaux).
Vin de Pays means ‘wine of the land’, although it is often translated as ‘country wine’. Its Europe-wide equivalent is IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). This category focuses on geographical origin rather than style and tradition, giving winemakers greater stylistic freedom than AOC. Vin de Pays was introduced in the 1970s, and by the year 2000 there were more than 150 individual VDP titles, covering about a quarter of French wine production.
Vin de France replaced the outdated Vin de Table category in 2010 and remains the most basic quality tier for French wine. This is the least regulated (and least used) of the three categories; Vin de France wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in France, but their labels do not mention a specific region of origin. Vintage and grape variety statements are optional.
Other examples of information encountered:
Supérieur – A regulatory term commonly used in Bordeaux to describe a wine with higher minimum alcohol and aging requirements than the base wine. Usually as a result of harvesting riper grapes.
Crémant – a style of sparkling wine other than Champagne but produced in the same fashion. e.g Crémant de Bourgogne
Méthode Traditionnelle – Traditional method of sparkling winemaking, same as used for Champagne.
Cru Classé – Classified vineyard.
B) Italian Wine Label Information
Italian wine labels, just like those from France and Spain, are required by law to show an established set of basic information (producer name, appellation, vintage, alcohol content and bottle volume). Italy began developing its official wine classifications in the 1960s, modeled on the French appellation system. The DOC and DOCG categories were introduced in 1963 (although the latter remain unused until 1982), and the IGT category followed in the early 1990’s.
The official tiers of Italian wine classification:
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wines. It denotes controlled (controllata) production methods and guaranteed (garantita) wine quality. There are strict rules governing the production of DOCG wines, most obviously the permitted grape varieties, yield limits, grape ripeness, winemaking procedures and barrel/bottle maturation. Every DOCG wine is subject to official tasting procedures. To prevent counterfeiting, the bottles have a numbered government seal across the neck.
DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is the main tier of Italian wine classification, covering almost every traditional Italian wine style. There are around 330 individual DOC titles, each with a set of laws governing its viticultural zone, permitted grape varieties and wine style. Those which show consistently high quality earn promotion to DOCG status.
IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) was introduced in 1992, to allow a certain level of freedom to Italy’s winemakers. Prior to 1992, many wines failed to qualify for DOC or DOCG status – not because they were of low quality, but because they were made from grape varieties (or blends) not sanctioned under DOC/G laws. The IGT classification focuses on the region of origin, rather than grape varieties or wine styles.
Other examples of information encountered:
Superiore – usually associated with a regional name and indicates a higher quality designation usually with a small increase in minimum alcohol level (with higher quality grapes).
Classico – classic or ‘core’ zone within a particular region. This doesn’t mean the wine is better, just that it’s from a ‘classic’ zone with more potential to produce high quality.
Riserva – a wine that’s been aged for longer (in cask, then bottle) than the normal version of the same denomination. Aging varies from denomination to denomination, but generally it’s about a year longer.
Each country has its own variation of these laws (we don’t have the space here to detail each one, but do get in touch if you have any questions!).
‘New World’ countries such as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are not bound by the EU rules, and in some ways are starting from scratch. This means grape varieties have been more prominent than regions on the labels of New World wines compared to traditional European wines.
Spain largely follows the model of France and Italy, but the most well-known terms are Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva. These are often associated with Rioja, where they aer widely used, but the terms also have legal meaning in other regions such as Ribera del Duero and Navarra:
Crianza – winery -aged for at least 2 years, of which at least 6 months (12 months in Navarra, Rioja & Ribera del Duero) are spent in oak casks.
Reserva – winery-aged for a minimum of 3 years, of which at least 12 months are spent in oak casks.
Gran Reserva – winery-aged for at least 5 years, of which 18 months (24 months in Navarra, Rioja and Ribera del Duero) are spent in oak casks.
There are many terms seen on wine labels that have no legal definition, but may indicate a style or quality within a producer’s range. For example, we have the ‘Adobe’ range from Emiliana in Chile, which they label as ‘Reserva’, while their ‘Novas’ range is labelled as ‘Gran Reserva’. These terms aren’t legally binding, but they indicate that the Novas wines are better quality than the Adobe wines.
Similar terms include ‘Special Cuvée’, ‘Winemaker’s Selection’ and ‘Vieilles Vignes’ which means old vines, but there is no definition of how old the vines must be to put this on a label.