Reading a Wine Label: Spin the Bottle to See What’s Inside

wine label design

Like the a cover for a book, Wine label art hints at what is inside.

Walk into a fine wine shop, and you feel like you’ve just stepped into an art museum. Creating wine labels certainly keeps the graphic artists busy! Wineries love to play up oenology as fine art, and reinforce the notion with gorgeous graphics on their bottles.

One can’t blame them, of course. Most of us enter a wine shop blind. We may know that we need “some wine,” but often don’t have a specific bottle in mind. Few of us are well-versed in the wine review sources, and wineries, like any other manufacturer, are aware of this.

To a degree, it is advertising, and designed to catch the eye and influence your purchase decision. However, wine bottle labeling is more than just pasting Starry Night to one side of a bottle, no matter how much glitter they add to the stars. In the United States, wine labels must disclose certain information, per federal regulations.

Wine Labels — the Truth from Front to Back

Government regulations demand that a variety of information be legibly printed on every bottle sold in the US. However, the laws are not so strict as to define with absolute precision where and how the information is to be displayed. Wine bottle labels will vary by size, shape and prominent features.

Required information is often relegated to a small label that contains the equivalent of legal fine print in other forms of advertising. Although your eyes will tell you the complete opposite, this legal info is the true front of the bottle. The splashy logos and large, lush graphics are the back of your bottle.

We prefer the illusion of sipping grace poured from a bottle aged lovingly by an oenological Rothko to that of the hack who writes “Contains sulfites” on the front. But when it comes to wine labels, politicians have mandated disclosure of some rather prosaic information, including:

  • Alcohol content
  • Wine type
  • The bottler’s name
  • Liquid volume
  • A sulfites disclosure
  • Health warnings

Wine Labels Look Best from the Back

Winemakers are permitted much more latitude on the back label. Here, they can commission new artwork or license existing works, and have a more engaging assignment for us writers, too. The result can often be an impressive package, and makes wine shopping fun.

Although many wine shops display reprints of wine reviews above bins to help you through a purchase decision, wine marketers often seize the opportunity to pitch the wine’s alleged features to you right on the label.

Glossary of a Wine Label – Define What’s Inside

We see prose more purple than the wine within, along with designations such as “reserve,” which indicates that the wine has been aged longer than, strictly speaking, necessary before release.

If a bottle is labeled “estate,” it means that the grapes were grown and the wine was bottled on the same property, which distinguishes it from wine made from grapes purchased from a different vineyard.

Over the past few decades it has become common to read about the percentage of the various varietals that comprise the blend before you, and a little bit about the oenologist’s process or inspiration, all of which help to personalize the bottle and enrich our enjoyment.

Despite its role as advertising, the back of the bottle helps us to learn more about wine making. Many people enjoy researching the terms found on labels, and comparing the characteristics revealed by the tongue compared to what is written on the bottle. Among the many appeals of wine is that it truly is something that, through study, can become an even more rewarding experience.

photo by Nosha

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