What to Look For on a Wine Label: A Quick-n-Dirty Guide

By Dave Schavone

We’ve all been there: you’re in the wine aisle trying to pick a bottle to pair with dinner but have absolutely no idea how to read the dozens of various wine labels. Some have pretty pictures, others have long, French words in archaic fonts that you can barely read—much less pronounce. Hell, one even features Snoop. Your options are: 1) ask for help (scary), 2) loiter in the wine aisle turning bottles over in your hand looking for … what? 3) grab a random bottle and hope it doesn’t kill the flavor of the sirloin you’re making for dinner. 

Understanding everything that could possibly be on a wine label would take quite a lot of learning, much of it esoteric, but there are a few go-to tips that can help you navigate the often-confusing amount of information you come across in the wine aisle. Read on for our quick-n-dirty guide to deciphering wine labels, from regions to grapes to vineyards and more.

Front Label:

  • Brand Name: probably the first thing to catch your eye apart from the snazzy/sexy/artsy label. The name is one of either two things—the name of the producer, or a brand name the producer came up with. One is not better than the other.
  • Varietal: the type of grape that was used in making the wine. Most New World wines will just list the varietal, whereas Old World wines list the place where the wine is from, which is intended to help you know which varietal(s) are used. This difference alone is the culprit of much confusion. 
  • Origin: the place the grapes were grown. Generally speaking, the more precise information you’re given on the origin, the better quality of the wine. For example, Mt. Veeder > Napa Valley > California would be a pretty safe bet in terms of quality. Some wines go so far as to designate a vineyard, such as La Tache or To-Kalon (another common reason for confusion).
  • Vintage: the year in which the grapes were harvested. Hot tip: most still wines will have a vintage declaration, whereas most sparkling wines will not.
  • ABV: the alcohol content. This can have a big impact not only on how bad your hangover will be in the morning, but also on flavor. Higher ABV wines tend to be produced from grapes that were at their ripest point and have a more robust flavor and body (think zinfandels and cabernets)

Back Label:

  • Producer: Somewhere on the back label, perhaps in very small font, it will tell you the name of the company that made the wine.
  • Importer: For wines from outside the US, an importer will be specified on the label. Pay attention to who imports the wines you like; when in unfamiliar territory, selecting a wine by the importer is a safer bet than going in blind. Some importers we always trust include Kermit Lynch, Rosenthal Wine Merchants, Jenny & Francois, and Louis/Dressner. 
  • Third-Party Seals: Organizations such as USDA Organic, Demeter, Certified Vegan, and Non-GMO Project all allow producers who meet their standards to include their seal of approval on the label.
  • Ingredients or Nutritional Facts: Not required to be listed on wine, but if they’re included on the label then the information has been vetted by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), so you know it is accurate.

Starting with these basics will help guide your valiant search for the best bottle to bring to the next poker night, or that much anticipated post-work-week celebration. Of course, there are exceptions to every general rule, and the only way to really know what a wine tastes like is to, well, taste it.