14 June 2010
The fact is that once you have learnt to find your way around them, wine labels give away much more about the contents of the bottle than it may first appear. For a start, EEC wines always tell you something about the wine's quality, in most cases telling you exactly where it officially rates on a scale of excellence: whether it is just ordinary plonk, or has a bit more going for it in terms of style and character; is average, good or special. But because most wines are foreign (not forgetting the limited supplies of our own native US wine, of course) the information is not only expressed in the language of the wine's country of origin, but even more confusingly, in a kind of local shorthand, gradually evolved over the decades to classify each country's wines. This shorthand, however, is easy to interpret, I promise you... and I explain how in the following text.
All labels must, by law, tell you a number of bare essentials - such as how much there is in the bottle, for instance. Traditionally, this was usually 0.75 of a litre, but most of the cheaper wines now come in 0.70 litre bottles. The country of origin of the wine must also be clearly revealed, along with the name and address of the maker of the wine or company responsible, in case of complaint. Certainly in the past, the scantiest information was all you were likely to get. Wine-makers used to be arrogant enough to believe that their name was all: that any further description of the wine was quite secondary. Who ever heard of a first-class claret boasting anything on the label but the holy name of the priceless chateau ...? The right temperature to serve the wine? You must be joking! But such insularity, except where the greatest wines in the world are concerned, is a thing of the past. Now wine-makers and sellers usually try to tell you as much as possible on the label. (The notable exception to this is the fact that the various additives used in production are not declared.
So as well as defining more precisely the region in which the wine was produced and declaring the vintage (that is, the year in which the wine was made) if such a date applies, you may find a description of the style of the wine on the neck label and a revelation of the alcohol content expressed as a percentage of the whole; say 8% for a mild, dry white, going up to a hefty 14% or so for some beefy reds from the hotter wine-making areas. To qualify as wine under EEC laws, it must have a minimum alcohol content of 7%. (That's about two and a half times as potent as beer, and around a quarter of the strength of spirits.) It used not to be the practice to reveal the names of any grape varieties used in making wine either - you were just supposed to 'know'; and among the 'classic' wines (and the cheaper blends) the grapes used are still kept a mystery. In a lot of cases, however, it is useful to know what the main ingredients are in a bottle of wine. Once you know what a certain grape type tastes like, you can then confidently go on to try different wines made from the same variety throughout the world. Wines made outside the 'classic' wine-making areas of Europe (that is, made in the less well known spots of Europe, Eastern European countries, North and South America, Australia and South Africa) tend to be labelled clearly with the predominating grape varieties, which is a useful flavour guide increasingly found on wine labels. For instance, Chardonnay is the grape used in classic white burgundy from France, but you won't see the grape's name on the bottle. In other countries, however, wine-makers using the grape are quite likely to call their wine simply 'Chardonnay'.
A number of wine bottles now carry back labels as well, which gives further scope for conveying information. Ludicrously, some wine-makers persist in using the space to perpetuate the 'mystery' surrounding the making and enjoyment of wine, giving a lot of useless data whimsically describing ancient traditions which no longer have any relevance to modern wine-making techniques. The majority, however, now tell you something about the wine itself, suggesting food that would make a good accompaniment and give serving advice. Do turn the bottle round and look out for this.
A very useful code has been devised to identify the dryness or sweetness of wines, a vital piece of information where white wines are concerned. (Most red wines are dry, so they are not classified on this scale.) A number of major - and not so major - supermarket and off-licence chains have adopted the code, and use it either on the front (or back) wine labels themselves, or include it in any description of the wine that appears on the shelf. The code runs from 1 to 9,1 being as dry a wine as you can get, and 9 indicating the most concentratedly sweet wines. A Muscadet, for example, rates number 1, Liebfraumilch number 5 and Asti Spumante number 7. If you keep in mind a particular wine you have liked, as a point of reference, you can then find another wine that might appeal to you with the same number on the scale.
Although most red wines are much of a muchness on the sweetness/dryness scale, they do have considerable differences in terms of weight (usually described as body) and in texture. Various wine companies have been working for a while on a code to classify red wines, and the system to be officially adopted is likely to be announced early in 1987.