How to Read the Label

"Location, location, location" – the motto of real estate agents is just as important to those who appreciate good wine. While certain foods carry a general notation of their origin, like Alberta Beef and Prince Edward Island Potatoes, a wine label can narrow down not only the country of origin, but also the precise plot of land on which the grapes were grown.

For anyone new to the world of wine, trying to read a wine label can be as intimidating as being asked your opinion in a winetasting. All the unpronounceable words, foreign language and mystical terms in tiny print! But remember that it’s all there to tell you something about the wine that’s inside the bottle and, if you’re not at a winery to taste before you buy, you’ll need to decode the label to select a bottle of wine you’ll enjoy.

Even though wines come from all corners of the world, and the labels at first may appear very different, you'll soon see that they all provide the same general information, with only relatively minor differences.

For more information on how to read the label on your wine bottle take a look at the VQA Rack Card!

Name of Winery
The name of the winery or producer of the wine is your best indicator of quality. The vintage year, the appellation of origin, the wine type, and terms like “reserve” or “estate bottled” cannot help you as much as the one piece of information that ties the wine in the bottle directly to the producer or winemaker who made it. Every producer and/or winemaker has a philosophy and dedication to filling a particular niche market with a product of a particular level of quality.

Name of the Grape Variety
The specific kind of grape from which the wine was made is the second most important piece of information on a label. All grape varieties have distinctive aromas, flavours and styles that make them unique. When a wine is named after the grape variety that was used to make it, it is called a varietal wine. Traditionally, varietal wines aspire to varietal character and can therefore tell us a lot about the aromas and flavours of the wine.

Vintage Date
This refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested, not the year in which the wine was bottled, which, for some wines, may be the next year or many years later. The general quality of harvest for that year will offer clues to the wine’s general quality."Late harvest" indicates the grapes hanging on the vine well past traditional harvest times for table wines. When the grapes are allowed to hang longer on the vine, the sugars and flavours are enhanced, making for a sweeter and more intensely flavoured wine. Late harvest wines are delicious dessert wines.

Appellation of Origin
This refers to the region in which the grapes were grown. In Canada, only a VQA wine can claim appellation of origin. This may be provincial, such as “Ontario;” regional, such as “Niagara Peninsula,” “Lake Erie North Shore,” "Prince Edward County" or more vineyard specific, such as “Butlers Grant Vineyard.” In Canada, wine-growing regions or appellations are defined by law, like most other wine-producing countries, and can be identified by the term VQA flanking both sides of the designated appellation.

Estate Bottled
In Ontario, a winery using the term “Estate Bottled” must meet more stringent VQA regulations. If the wine is "estate bottled,” it was made from grapes grown and harvested in the winery's own vineyards, giving the winery complete control over the quality and style of the wine. "Vineyard Name" wineries can use a vineyard name in addition to the appellation of origin when they want to highlight the distinctiveness that the vineyard contributes to the wine. The distinctiveness can come from specific vineyard practices or terroir influences, or to highlight a particularly well-known vineyard.

Alcohol Content
This information is given in percent by volume. Most regulations allow for a variation of plus or minus .5% between the alcohol content printed on the label and the actual alcohol content of the wines. Table wines traditionally range between 10% and 14% alcohol content. A wine with 14% alcohol level would suggest that the wine will be very full bodied, whereas a wine of 10% alcohol will be lighter and fruitier, refreshing when served chilled.

Proprietary Wines
Travigna is an example of a proprietary name; in this case, a trademark name for Inniskillin’s exclusive use. Proprietary wines are generic names of wines with generic styles (non-distinctive qualities). Traditionally, these are blended wines and the character intentionally does not change from vintage year to vintage year. These wines can be used as blended house wines, but also be a signature wine of premium quality. The grape varieties are not necessarily announced on the front label, but some producers list them on the back.

Produced and Bottled By
This term will offer clues to the winery’s control over grape growing, and its relationship to the vineyard. If the wine is produced and bottled by the same producer, then you can assume that quality control has been consistent and movement of wine less from vineyard to point of sale.

Special Terms
Reserve, Bottle Fermented, Special Selection, Barrel Aging, and Barrel Fermented are all terms that refer to a specific vineyard or winemaking technique that the wines have undergone. These are traditionally higher in price due to the extra care, attention and quality.

Optional information
Additional information that may range from winemaker's notes or detailed analytical and tasting information to food accompaniments are often featured on labels, especially the back label. This is also where you’ll find the CSPC code (Canadian Standard Product Code), an inventory tracking system for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

There are hundreds of wine bottles that line shelves at winery stores and LCBO outlets. If you find a label term that you can't figure out, or find a quirky label that doesn't fit these general rules, please feel free to get in touch.