How to Read a Wine Label

Say you’re in the wine store and you want to buy something new. You have nothing to go by outside of the label. Will the label tell you anything you should know?

We were asked this question by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” recently and we realized that, surprisingly, we’d never been asked that before. We are often asked how to read labels — whole books have been written about that. Ms. Gross’s question was simpler yet far broader. In a sea of wine labels, are there certain things to look for — across the board, country to country? We’ve thought a lot about it, and here’s what to look for and what to ignore. There are a million caveats and exceptions, but here’s some general advice:

Vintage. This is actually the first thing we look for ourselves. You don’t need to have a vintage chart in your pocket or care whether 2001 or 2002 was a better year in the Sierra Foothills. The vast majority of wines at the store are meant to be drunk right away, so you want to make sure the wine isn’t too old, particularly if you’re buying it expecting lively, fresh fruitiness. We routinely see five-year-old Pinot Grigio and two-year-old Beaujolais Nouveau at stores, for example, so as soon as we see that kind of age on wines like those, we know we can skip them and move on (and possibly not shop there again).


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