How to read a wine label

It may seem strange to expand on how a label may be read, but what seems obvious to some may not be as obvious to others – especially in a country as diverse as South Africa.

One would think this a novel topic, but even the popular catchall has covered it: ‘’Once upon a time, wine labels were boring, colourless (literally and in spirit), and the opposite of inviting. Now, many wine labels are fun. They catch your eye, draw you in for a closer look, and maybe make you smile. Although we tend to have classic tastes in wine, we love the variety of wine labels because it makes browsing for wine more enjoyable than ever.’’

Beyond appealing to our aesthetic sensibilities however, wine labels are often jam-packed with information that may help us differentiating wines from each other. And, lets face it, the wine aisles of supermarkets and liquor stores can be overwhelming.

The first job of a wine label is to catch the eye, followed by design that tells you which brand it belongs to. There are many ways this is achieved, and designers employ images and other elements as much as text to convey the message.

In fact, the field of wine and indeed label design is huge, with trends constantly evolving. Individual labels must not only tell you the obvious, but also have to represent the message and character inherent to the brand.

In this way, it resembles an orchestra: you may have all the instruments required, but if they don’t work together, it’s just noisy chaos that repels rather than attracts the person it intends to impress.

It’s important to add that while labels must satisfy some basic requirements, set by law, but also occasionally by distributors of a particular wine, there are always exceptions. Keep in mind that the laws around labelling are lengthy and are only superficially reflected here.

In general, wine information on a bottle is generally contained on a front label, back label and often around the neck too. Bottles themselves can convey a well-known style, such as a Cap Classique or Bordeaux, while colours may be used to indicate at class such as white, red, rosé or so on.

The front label most often declares the name of the brand, winery, range that the wine is part of, the variety or varieties of grape(s) used; and, year, or vintage, that the grapes for the wine were harvested. If a wine is “non-vintage” (NV), it is understood to mean that grapes used were harvested from different years.

More specific information is often reserved for the back label. In addition to a bar code, it may include the type of wine, alcohol content, a health warning and volume. It will also contain the producer’s full name and address, which can be substituted by a special code comprising the letter A or B, followed by a series of numbers.

The code can be deciphered via the Department of Agriculture or SA Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS) website.

In addition, the label will include reference to the region, or appellation, that supplied the grapes, as per South Africa’s legislated Wine of Origin Scheme; and, whether the wine contains sulphites.

Wines containing no alcohol have their own label regulations and can carry details such as sugar content and the like.

It’s certainly a lot to take in, but it’s worth keeping in mind next time there’s a quick run to the supermarket to pick up tipple for the weekend.