Updated: Jan 9, 2022
As I mentioned in ``The 5 Secrets To Finding Artisan Wines At EveryDay Prices”, when tasting wines it’s best to lead with your mind and let the palate follow. A hack for a mindful taster is to know what you’re tasting. Sure, I know that blind tasting sounds sexy, but even the best tasters have a very rigorous and systematic approach designed specifically to let them mentally identify what they are tasting.
The bottle is the first place to start your tasting, so before you pop the cork, give that bottle a good once over. Because we’re mostly tasting local artisan wines at Divvy-Up Wines, we’ll start with labeling habits here in the USA. Our labeling is relatively simple in comparison to labeling elsewhere, such as the EU, where you need to do a fair amount of homework first.
When looking at the label of a local artisan wine there are several things that will give you a head start in understanding how the wine will taste.
Single Varietal or blend?
Although winemakers are free to label their wines with any marketing names, there are regulations related to the use of the grape varietal. It is not uncommon for wines to be composed of multiple varieties of grapes, but generally, if a wine is labeled as a single varietal it must be composed of at least 75% of that grape. Note that winemakers will often blend in a bit of another type of grape to add an additional complexity, color or structure to the wine. When a wine is labeled Red or White or given a marketing name, chances are that it is a blend.
Nothing bad about that. The trick is to find out what’s in the blend. Some like GSM (Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah) are clear. Others are traditional blends, but can be vary. Rhone blends are usually Grenache and Syrah combinations. Bordeaux blends are usually Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot combinations.
Like the variety of the grape, when a winemaker puts a specific wine region called an AVA (American Viticultural Area) on the label, then the wine must be composed of at least 85% fruit from that AVA. Again you see that there is a little wiggle room. AVAs must be approved and are generally created by the growers in a specific area. They are based on distinctive and shared influences on the fruit that can be tasted in the wine. For this reason they are fiercely protected, and they give the mindful taster a lot of information about the wine.
Source of the fruit
Another useful bit of info from a label is the actual vineyard source. There are a couple code words to know here. When you see the name of a vineyard on the label, it means 95% of the grapes come from that vineyard. This tells you two things. The first identifies a potentially known vineyard. Some of the best vineyards sell some if not all their fruit to many winemakers. One of the most famous examples is Beckstoffer Vineyards in Napa Valley.
The second clue from a single vineyard is to expect a more unique taste experience. Think of an artist painting with a single color. Brush strokes, thickness of paint, the skill of the artist can create variation, but the color defines a framework for the painting. Vineyard designate wines generally express the unique qualities of the site and clones of the fruit planted there.
You might also see the term Estate Bottled. That means that the fruit for the wine all comes from land that is owned by the winery, and that the wine was crushed, fermented and bottled at the winery.
The year on a wine bottle represents the year of harvest for the fruit. Here again there is some wiggle room, because a wine can have as much as 15% from a different vintage. This information helps you understand the possible aroma and taste characteristics that come from age, particularly if you also know the aging process including oak usage which we always try to provide on Divvy-Up. Interesting aromas and flavors like vanilla, honey, chocolate, coffee, leather and caramel develop during aging. Also, aging reduces the brightness of the fruit and softens the structure of the tannins.
All wines are required to indicate their alcohol level. For wines above 14% alcohol a numerical value is required, but for wines between 7% and 14%, winemakers have the option of using the terms “table wine” or “light wine”. Alcohol level gives you an indication of the body of the wine. Wines with alcohol levels under 11.5% are said to have medium low, between 11.5% and 13.% medium, and 13.5% to 15% medium high, and above 15% high alcohol. Lighter body wines skew to lower levels of alcohol and fuller bodied wines to higher levels. Of course, tannin, sweetness and acidity also contribute to a wine’s body, but the alcohol level is an excellent marker.
Special label codes
Sometimes a winemaker will also put additional information on a label. Take this all with a grain of salt as it is not regulated. Sometimes information like “late harvest” will give you a clue about taste. Terms like “vintner’s reserve” or “private selection” may indicate some special treatment, but unless you know the winemaker’s style it’s not bankable information.
Taking a quick look at this information on the wine label, you can begin to create a taste framework in your mind about a wine. In future articles, we’ll look at how climate affects wine aromas and flavors. Check it out.