Wine labels 101

Uncover well-guarded secrets

YOU’RE STANDING IN the liquor store surveying a bewildering regiment of wines. What motivates you to reach for one particular bottle: price, cute little critter on the label, colour? Or do you actually pick up the bottle and read the label front and back? You should; otherwise, you might not be buying what you think you are.

For instance, if you wanted to support the local industry by buying an Ontario wine, look for the VQA symbol. If it’s not there, turn to the back label and you’ll see in miniscule letters the words “Cellared in Canada.” This tells you that the wine you are purchasing is made of up to 70 per cent offshore material blended with Ontario wine. So that Cabernet Sauvignon with the familiar looking Ontario label will be coming mainly from Chile or South Africa or California’s Central Valley.

Every wine label must contain the producer’s name and address, the name of the wine, grape variety, its colour, the vintage, the percentage of alcohol by volume and the contents of the bottle (usually 750 ml or 350 ml for half bottles, 1,000 ml for Tetra Paks). Even the size of the typeface for each entry is regulated.

The alcohol level will give you a clue as to the weight of the wine and usually the concentration of flavour and hefty mouth-feel. A wine of 13 per cent alcohol or greater will be full-bodied, such as a California Chardonnay, while a German Riesling at eight per cent alcohol will be light-bodied. But the alcohol reading is never exact since the level can change with time in the bottle, so producers are allowed a one degree tolerance in their declaration on the label.

The vintage date on the label tells you the harvest year. This, however, is not always the case when it comes to Icewine. If growers had to leave the grapes on the vine until January or February in order for the berries to freeze solid, they will date the wine from the previous year.

If you find no vintage date anywhere on the bottle this means that the wine is a blend of two or more different years. And a single grape variety noted on the label does not necessarily mean that the wine is made 100 per cent from that variety.


Producers can blend in up to 15 per cent — 25 per cent of another variety depending on the local wine laws. If the percentage exceeds 15 per cent, then both grapes will appear on the label with the major partner written first (as in Henry of Pelham Cabernet Merlot).

The term “Meritage” on a label refers to a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. A white Meritage will be Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Back labels can give you other useful information. Producers use them to offer technical information about the harvest and winemaking procedures, how long the wine was aged in oak and what the flavour profile is. They may also recommend the optimal serving temperature and food matching suggestions.

So next time you go wine shopping, study the label on the bottle. You can impress your dinner guests with your expertise.

Post City Magazines’ wine columnist, Tony Aspler, has written 14 books on wine and food. Tony also created the Ontario Wine Awards. He can be heard on 680News.

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