Wine labels can be very confusing, especially because the customs and regulations vary from country to country. Let’s take a look at American wine labels and the meanings behind the terminology.
The first thing to know is that, aside from the flowery descriptors we see on the label, most of the terms there are legal terms, which have specific requirements behind them.
In the USA, the glamorous work of regulating the label content is performed by the federal government, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). They are responsible for truth in labeling, taxation and overseeing health statements. Some of the requirements are extremely detailed and tedious, so we’ll just address those that are most likely to matter to you.
Brand: An identifying brand name is required on all wine bottles. The brand could be the actual producer, a “virtual winery” (a brand that uses the production facilities of another winery) or could be a restaurant or grocery store chain that contracted with a winery to produce wine for a “special label” like Joe’s Cafe Cabernet Sauvignon.
Viticulture Area (aka: Appellation): Nearly always precedes the varietal name on the label and always refers to the grape source, not the location of the winery. A winery located in Los Angeles can harvest Chardonnay from a vineyard in the Napa Valley, and the correct appellation in that case is Napa Valley Chardonnay. To put a viticultural area such as Napa Valley, or Yountville Appellation on the label, at least 85% of the wine grapes must be from that legally defined area. If the label says “California”, the requirement is 100%, so all of the grapes in the wine must be California grown.
Vineyard Designation: At least 95% of the wine grapes must be from the named vineyard. So, if a label says “Colleen’s Vineyard”, then at least 95% of the wine grapes must come from that vineyard.
Varietal: At least 75% of the wine must be made of the named grape variety. Therefore, if a wine label says “Cabernet Sauvignon”, then you know that at least 75% of the wine is made of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. If it says “Red Table Wine”, or has a proprietary name like “AmerItal”, you can assume that the wine was blended at the discretion of the winemaker.
Vintage: It’s always the harvest date, but the regulations are a little tricky. For most wines made in the USA, the minimum requirement is that 85% of the grapes must have been harvested that vintage year. For wines that are labeled with an A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area; see GCU article on “What is an AVA?”), such as Napa Valley or the Yountville District, the requirement is 95%. For ice wine that’s harvested in January, the vintage date goes back to the previous year, the year of the growing season.
Alcohol Declared: The TTB allows for 1.5% tolerance either way for wines under 14%. A tolerance of 1% over or under the stated level is permitted on wines above 14%. Therefore, if a wine says 13.0% alcohol, it can actually be somewhere between 11.5% and 14.5% alcohol. This allowance can save wineries money on label printing costs.
“Estate Bottled” Contrary to popular belief, the word “Estate” does not necessarily signify that the winery owns the vineyard from which this wine was made. Rather, 100% of the grapes must be from vineyards owned or controlled (minimum 3-year contract or lease) by the winery. Also, the vineyard and winery must be in the same viticultural area (such as Napa Valley or the Yountville District). If a wine label says “Estate”, it means that the winery crushed, fermented, finished, aged, and bottled the wine on winery premises.
“Grown, Produced and Bottled By”: Very similar to Estate Bottled. It requires that all of the grapes come from vineyards owned or controlled by the winery, but not necessarily from the same AVA. In addition, the winery must have fermented at least 75% of the wine and bottled it on winery premises.
“Produced By” or “Made By”: At least 75% of that wine must be fermented on winery premises. However, the wine can be finished, aged and bottled off-site.
“Cellared & Bottled by”: Indicates that the bottler has aged the wine or subjected it to cellar treatment before bottling, but has not necessarily fermented the wine on site. For instance, this wine may have been fermented by one winery, and sold to another winery for aging, or other cellar treatment and bottling.
“Bottled By”, “Selected By”, or “Perfected By”: Indicates that the winery bottled the wine, which may have been grown, crushed, fermented, finished, and aged by someone else. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it just means you don’t know as much about it.
Just for fun: There are some terms on the label that have no legal requirement at all in the USA, which means they have no standardized meaning. They’re generally used for marketing, although some wineries may attach their own meaning to them. Here are some favorites: Reserve, special select, mountain, old vine, limited release. The list goes on and on! It always pays to ask questions when you’re buying wine!