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 Events  Share this article     Summary of Corkscrew column Not Just Wine 
  Corkscrew Issue 15, January 2004   
Reading Wine LabelsReading Wine Labels  Contents 
Issue 14, December 2003 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 16, February 2004

Reading Wine Labels

Often considered as items to be collected, labels provide useful information about the origin and the characteristics of a wine, nevertheless their purpose is promotional as well as giving the bottle a proper identity

 Marketing studies have discovered that a consumer, in front of a rich offering of products belonging to the same category and exposed in a supermarket, most of the times bases his or her choice according to the message transmitted by the package. In that moment, in particular when he or she does not have any competence neither on the category of the product nor on the specific product as well, the choice is strongly influenced by appearance. Wine, a product which is getting more and more important in the market, is no exception. After all it is enough observing the evolution of the label in the past 15 years to realize graphic designers, advertisement and wineries have paid lots of attention on this essential tool of identification. In few years took place a progressive evolution of the label which has transformed it from a simple and sober look, almost essential, to a more pompous and colored form, and sometimes, so rich in decorative details that makes invisible the fundamental information it should communicate instead.


 Of course we are not interested, in this context, about the graphical and promotional evolution of the label, what is of interest to us is how to read it, while trying to understand what kind of information can be obtained by it. No matter the graphical aspect, wine labels must obey to strict and rigid norms and laws in force in many countries and must explicitly communicate information about the origin, the producer and the characteristics of wine. However these information, certainly useful for the consumer, cannot provide any information about the real quality of a wine, a condition which can be verified only and indisputably by tasting. The real quality of a wine, as well as of any other products, is not guaranteed by the information written on the label or by specific laws, quality is, first of all, a condition and a principle on which the producer bases his or her work. Of course it is of fundamental importance the existence of specific laws regulating the production of foods and beverages, therefore of wine as well, in order to ensure consumers on the essential requisites for a quality production and for preventing any fraud.


The Dress of the Bottle

 Labels, in the course of the history of wine, have progressively contributed to a better identification of the product while making it more visible from the others. By comparing the labels used in bottles one century ago with the ones used today, it can be noticed their development and communicative role plays now a fundamental function. In the past wine labels were frequently handwritten and had essential and succinct information about the producer, name of wine, vintage and, sometimes, the area of origin. Nowadays, besides having these information, wine labels are richly colored and to the textual information have been added images, pictures and logos of every kind, form and color. Usually in bottles is not used one label only, there are other smaller labels as well, located in “secondary” positions, having the purpose of improving the identification of the bottle as well as providing supplementary information to the consumer about the characteristics of the wine.

 The label which mainly identifies a bottle is the one placed in the front side, generally having a larger size, and its composition is usually regulated by specific laws and norms in force in every country of the world. In the back side of the bottle is frequently found the so called “back label”, most of the times source of precious information about the wine and on the way it should be served and kept. The back label, generally smaller than the front label, in some cases must state special and mandatory information and “warnings” imposed by the laws in force in certain countries. To complete the “dress” of the label can also be used a “neck label”, a typical label found in sparkling wines and placed in the neck, besides having a decorative function, it frequently reports some characteristics of the wine, such as vintage. Other labels that can be found in a bottle are represented by the many “seals” of identification from producer consortiums or for the safeguarding of a specific wine, such as the renowned “black rooster” for Chianti Classico, as well as small labels which remind the consumer about award conferred to the wine or to the producer. Moreover, according to specific laws safeguarding the quality systems of the many countries, in bottles can also be found special seals conferred to the producer by specific government bureaus which are usually placed on the bottle's neck in order to guarantee both the quality of wine and its origin. An example of government seals is offered by Italian DOCG wines (Denominazione d'Origine Controllata e Garantita) and by South African WO wines (Wine of Origin).


Information of the Label

 No matter the efficient communicative and promotional role of the label, the most important and practical purpose for the consumer is to provide information about the nature and the characteristics of a wine. No matter how strict can be the laws in force in the many wine producing countries, a function that a label cannot ensure to the consumer is to provide information on the real quality of the wine. This guarantee is solely offered by the seriousness of the producer and, unfortunately, can be assessed only by tasting and by the evaluation of the product. Despite the label should provide, in theory, a fundamental guarantee about the quality of the product, experience and practice teach us wines coming from the same area but from different producers, whose production is regulated by the very same laws, indisputably have very different levels of quality from each other. Because of the number of laws in force in every country and regulating labelling, we will just discuss aspect which are common in every country of the world and that are virtually found in every label. For specific information about quality systems in force in the many countries of the world, whose effects influence the information stated on labels, we invite readers to read the articles published in the “ABC Wine” column.

From labels can be read useful
information about wine and its origin
From labels can be read useful information about wine and its origin

 In certain countries there are specific laws which regulate the labelling of wine bottles and force producers to warn consumers about the possible risks connected to the consumption of wine. Whereas it is completely and indisputably true that alcoholism is a social plague to be prevented and contrasted - we will always continue to say the pleasure and the wise appreciation of wine can only be realized with a moderate and wise consumption - it is disputable the nature of some norms. Generally it is reminded, in the country where these laws are in force, the consumption of wine can be cause of diseases as well as being detrimental for health, whereas there is no mention about the quantity that can be cause of such diseases. According to this point of view, it is not clear whether a single sip of wine can cause serious damages to health or it is needed a whole bottle or even a cask instead. Culture and civilization are also expressed by the honesty of certain assertions and certainly not by the indiscriminate generalization and approximation which are detrimental and give origin to alarmism and unjust prejudices. Once again, the abuse of alcohol is neither a favorable aspect nor something that can be agreed, it is a condition to be contrasted, and this can be done, first of all, by giving a honest and correct information. Moreover many medical researches on the effects of wine on health, suggest a moderate and wise consumption of wine is beneficial to the improvement and to the good keeping of health. This medical and scientific consideration seems to be in contrast with the generalization suggested by some warnings to be written by law in certain countries.

 As mentioned above, the information stated by law in labels vary from country to country, however some of them are virtually included in every labelling system and are now considered as common information in every bottle. The following list includes the information usually found in labels.


  • Name of Wine - States and identifies the wine itself and it can also be represented by an abstract name. In many cases the name of the wine can also be represented by the area or place in which it was produced or by the name of the grape, or grapes, used for the production
  • Name of Producer - This information is usually and clearly shown in the wine labels and completes the identification of the product. It should be noticed in certain countries this information can be just represented by the address of the producer, or the bottler, as well as juridical information which allow the identification of the producer, such as the chamber of commerce's registration number
  • Category and Denomination - Information strictly connected to the quality system in force in the country where the wine was produced. Every country sets proper categories for their quality systems and they must be stated in labels. In France, for example, are identified by AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) or Vin de Pays, whereas in Italy are represented by DOC (Denominazione d'Origine Controllata) or IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). For more information about quality systems adopted in the many countries, please read the articles published in “ABC Wine” column.
  • Area of Origin - This information is strictly connected to the quality system in force in every producing country and generally depends on the category and denomination. It is usually represented by the name of the town, and more specifically, the name of the area of origin as well as the name of cities, communes, villages, or smaller areas, as well as the name of vineyard in which grapes were harvested. In general terms, in wines belonging to categories of superior qualities, such as French AOC or Italian DOC, the name of the area of origin must be recognized and allowed by law
  • Vintage - Indicates the year of harvesting in which the wine was produced. The indication of vintage, that in certain categories of quality systems can also be omitted, is regulated by specific laws and can also permit, for example, the indication of the vintage only if the wine contained in the bottle was completely produced in that specific vintage. It must be however observed that for certain categories and in some countries, the vintage can be indicated also when just a part of the wine was produced in that vintage whereas the remaining part was produced in different vintages
  • Volume of Bottle - Indicates the quantity of wine contained in a bottle. The volume of a bottle usually is of 750 milliliters (about 25,36 fl.oz.) and the volume of other bottle sizes is generally represented by multiples or sub multiples of this measure
  • Alcohol by Volume - Indicates the quantity of alcohol contained in a wine in relation to the total volume. The measuring of the quantity of alcohol is generally expressed in percentage (%), however in many countries, such as Italy, it is expressed in degrees (°) and one degree corresponds to one percentage unit, therefore the two measuring methods are equivalent. For example, a wine having 12% of alcohol by volume is equal to a wine having 12°. The alcohol by volume which is usually reported in the label is about the real contents of alcohol, that is the quantity of alcohol which is really present. It must be however observed that this measure, according to the laws in force in many countries, can be higher or lower of the stated value according to a small tolerance. For example, in case the legal tolerance is of 0.5%, a wine stating in the label 12% can contain a quantity of alcohol from 11.5% to 12.5%. Sometimes the alcohol by volume is completed by a supplementary information, as for the case of some Italian wines, which indicates the potential alcohol by volume. This value is reported after the real content of alcohol by using a plus sign (+) and it is expressed in degrees (°) or in percentage (%). Potential alcohol by volume indicates the quantity of residual sugar contained in the wine and not transformed in alcohol, that is not fermented, therefore contributing to the sweetness of wine and not to be quantity of alcohol. For example, the indication of 12°+3° means the real content of alcohol by volume is 12° (12%), whereas the quantity of potential alcohol that would be added to the real quantity, in case residual sugar is fermented and transformed into alcohol, is equal to 2° (2%).
  • Composition of Wine - Indicates the name of the grapes, or grapes, used for the production of the wine. The indication of this information depends on the laws in force in the many countries and, in some cases, can also be omitted. In some quality systems the indication of the composition is allowed only if a specific percentage of wine was produced with the grape, or grapes, stated in the label
  • Other Indications - Quality systems adopted by the many countries, can also provide the indication of supplementary terms in order to give to the consumer a better and clearer information about the nature and quality of a wine. These information are generally about the typicality of wines, such as the terms Classico, Riserva and Superiore for Italian wines, as well as indications about the sweetness of a wine, such as the terms Demi-Sec, Brut and Sweet. These supplementary information also depend by the type of wine in which are being used, as in the case of Jerez (Sherry) and Port.


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  Corkscrew Issue 15, January 2004   
Reading Wine LabelsReading Wine Labels  Contents 
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