Decoding Those Confusing Wine Labels - Part 2

Part 2 of this blog post on "Decoding Wine Labels" will be very technical. Many illustrations will be provided to help support the confusing and unique language given to European wine bottles. To begin, let's look at 'indications of origin' in the European Union (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and so on). The E.U. has a system to recognize and protect agricultural products, such as wine, cheese, meats,etc..., that come from specific places so that companies outside these locations can't make products with the same name and thereby confusing consumers. For example -

Two different phrases exist from protected places - 1) Wines named for places where production is highly regulated so that the very place name of wine not only defines the territory of production, but also puts forth the grape varieties used for that wine, grape growing practices, and winemaking techniques (PDO). 2) Wines that carry the protected names of larger places where winemakers have more freedom in choosing to grow different grape varietals and the production methods they can use (PGI). To make things more complicated, each country translates these codes into their own language. These are officially protected  geographic zones. The place name for American wines is American Viticultural Area (AVA), but doesn't appear on wine labels. Nor does any such indication of origin for South America or Australia. Most inexpensive, high volume wines are not regulated and therefore do not carry these indicators. Keep in mind that much of the info on wine labels are meaningless and make you think you're getting a special, high quality wine (up to individual estate or winemaker)

Label terms for E.U. countries with PDo status (most regulated) -

France - AC, AOC, AOP / less regulated (IGP) or Vin de Pays followed by name of approved area

Italy - DOP, DOC, DOCG (higher status) / less regulated (IGP) or (IGT) followed by approved area

Spain - DOP, DO, DOCa (higher status - Rioja, Priorat) / less regulated (IGP) or Vino de la Tierra followed by approved area

Portugal - DOP, DOC / (IG refers to region, but on label, Vinho Regional and approved area

Germany - Qualitatswein (inexpensive), Pradikatsweine (higher ripeness, Spatlese, Auslese, BA...) / Landwein


Sample Wine Label from Italy





Other Wine Labels







The word 'vintage' followed by the year or year listed alone is probably the most common optional info on a wine label. The vintage year indicates the year in which the grapes for a particular wine grew - the wine must have 75 to 100% of the grapes of this year, depending on country. Non-vintage wines contains more than one year). Vintage labeling does not indicate quality. Non-vintage wines may be a result of challenging weather conditions that year or to enhance the quality of the wine by choosing grapes other vineyards within the region, which happens quite often in Australia.

The term 'reserve' is common on U.S. wine labels, but doesn't make the wine any more special. For example, some California wines labeled 'Proprietor's Reserve' are the least expensive wine in a producer's lineup and other labels 'Special Reserve', 'Vintage Reserve', and 'Reserve  Selection' don't mean much.

In some countries like Italy and Spain, the term reserve/reserva/riserva indicates a wine that has received extra aging at the winery before release. Implicitly, that means the wine is special and better than normal. Spain actually has varying degrees of reserve, i.e. Gran Reserva. In France, it may indicate better quality, but not regulated so the French can list if they want.


Estate is a fancy word for a wine farm, a combined grape growing and winemaking operation. The term 'estate bottled' on wine label means that the company grew the grapes, made the wine, and bottled it. In many countries, the winery doesn't necessarily have to own the vineyards, but it has to control the vineyards and perform the vineyard operations. Great wines don't have to be estate-bottled. A great example is Ravenswood Winery in California, who makes awesome wine from grapes of small vineyards owned and operated by private landwoners. These landowners may or may not even be serious about the vineyards and sell their grapes to various wineries. These wines are not considered estate-bottled. In France, the words 'chateau' and 'domaine' are synonymous with the American estate term.

Lastly, some wines in the medium to expensive price category may carry the name of the specific vineyard where the grapes grew on the label. Sometimes a one winery will make two or three different wines that are distinguishable only by the vineyard name on the label. Each wine is unique because the 'terroir' of each vineyard is unique. These single vineyards may or may not be identified by the word 'vineyard' next to the name of the vineyard.

Some other terms -

Vielles Vignes, which translates to "old vines" may appear on French, California, and Australian labels.

Superior, french (Superieure), or italian (Superiore) on label may indicate that the wine attained a higher level of alcohol than a non-superior version of the same wine. In Italy, Soave Superiore is a a wine that's distinct from the wine Soave by virtue of its vineyard location, winemaking, etc... Classico, i.e. Chianti Classico, appears on the label as well indicating that the grapes come from the heartland/historic of the named place.




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