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30th November 2023

Reading Wine Labels Beyond Words




In the world of fermented grape juice, bottle labels usually mean more what they say. The rule of thumb among wine enthusiasts is that the more finite the specifications, the more expensive it’s going to be. For instance, when the harvest year and appellation are printed on the label, one can bet that it’s a regional wine that doesn’t come cheap.


Understanding the complexity of wine labeling starts by knowing that Old World wines come from the countries with long exportation histories. These are the European countries, specifically Italy, Spain, and France, which have been making wines as early before the Roman Empire. While the New World are those that just began exporting in the past century such as Australia, South Africa, Chile, and the U.S.


Old World wines are labeled on a regional basis. Champagne wines – popular sparkling wines – are so named because they come from the Champagne region in France. The same goes with Bordeaux (France) and Tuscany (Italy) wines. New World, on the other hand, highlights the grape variety of the wine, for example Cabernet Sauvignon, than the region.

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One reason for this difference, wine columnist Sherwin Lao explained during his lecture at the Chefs on Parade 2013, is to avoid market confusion on the different wine-making styles of Europe and the New World countries. “If you are New World, you have no history of Old World region, then you cannot claim anything with a mere regional name. I cannot say Napa Valley because nobody understands what Napa is, so I say Cabernet Sauvignon Napa then I get understood,” he said.


Moreover, European wines are usually blends of two or more grape varieties. Their emphasis goes on the “terroir” or the micro-climate in a specific vineyard estate. A wine from a certain estate will always taste different than the wine coming from a stone’s-throw-away estate since all natural and human variables – sun, rainwater, time of harvest, oak barrel, etc. – will affect the taste, said Lao.

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One of the selling points of New World wines is pure blend wine. These countries are less traditional and employ techniques such as irrigation that would avoid their being dependent on weather for the desired taste.


Wine quality classifications vary, but the European Union’s harmonized laws provide that still wines (red or white) be categorized either as a Table Wine or Quality Wine Produced in Specified Regions. Beyond a regional law, each European nation would have its own quality classification; France, for one, has a four-level general classification, with the highest quality wines in Bordeaux or Burgundy still segmented based on separate classification schemes.


Generally, table wines occupy the lowest rank and their labels simply indicate whether the juice is red or white and the location. For instance, a California Red describes only the wine type and that it came from a U.S. State with 107 appellations. An appellation is a legal geographic area that grows wine.

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Following the rule of thumb, as the wine label becomes more specific, it gets more costly. A California Cabernet Sauvignon, while still bannering a general area, however is more specific because it discloses the grape variety. This is wine can reach PHP400-500, said Lao.


Regional and premium wines that specify appellations top all else. Aside from the usual labels seen in a table wine such as alcohol content and bottle size, they bear the year of harvest of the grapes, regional name, and appellation. The price point can be anything to as much as a hundred times that of a table wine. One of the most expensive wines in the world ever to be sold is the Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945 – note the specificity of the name – which cost about USD23,000 (PHP920,000) for a 750mL bottle.


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