Buying wine in the supermarket or wine shops is a challenge as you are not able to try the wine before buying. So what kind of indicators, references can we find on the bottle to estimate the quality of the wine? How can you find a wine that suits your taste?
Working in wine business for over ten years made me realize that many people have the struggle of finding a suitable wine in the supermarket. Many friends ask me how to find a good wine and how to tell if the quality will be guaranteed by just looking at the label.
There are many more references of quality than just the price. If we talk about price per bottle in wine business we consider a bottle costing over 5 Euro as a premium wine. Especially concerning price policy of supermarkets. But most of the time there are many more information on the label, which hint you to what you really want. So I decided to create a list of how to investigate your wine desires by just looking at the label.
Hints on wine labels and how to interpret them:
- The alcohol content vol %
First thing to look at is the alcohol content. It gives you many information about how the wine will taste and makes it easier to find your suitable favorite. So the higher the alcohol content of the wine, the dryer the wine will be.
Why that? As we are producing wine we are working with yeasts. They occur naturally on the grapes, but most of the time winemakers work with commercial yeasts to have a controlled fermentation. What are yeasts doing? We have sugar in the grape juice. The yeasts are eating the sugars and, (excuse me for this expression but it’s true) shitting the alcohol. This is how alcohol is produced during the fermentation. The more the yeasts are working the more alcohol they will produce, the more sugar they are eating, the drying the wine.
What do you learn from this? If you prefer more sweeter wines, you go for a wine with lower alcohol content. If you like it dry look for wines with higher alcohol content. Here the data you need to know to have a relation in your mind:
Residual sugar of the wine:
Dry = 4g/Liter
Medium dry = 12g/Liter
Medium = 45g/Liter
Sweet = more than 45g/Liter
Even if these data are not mentioned on the label, we can say that a wine with less than 10 vol % will be definitely sweet. Until 12 vol% the wine will be medium fruity. Everything higher than 13 vol% will give you a dry wine.
2. Origin — Wine classification
The origin of the wine and the guarantee that it comes from a specific region can help us a lot to find a quality wine. It’s a complex topic and every country has its own classification. Basically you have to imagine that a specific wine region has its own quality rules. This implies for example the grape varieties winemakers are allowed to plant and use for the wine, but also a maximum amount of yield per hectare, which influences the quality enormously. If the winery sticks to all these quality rules they get a certification:
I will use the Italian model as an example:
DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wines. It denotes controlled (controllata) production methods and guaranteed (garantita) wine quality. It’s the top of the pyramide. And only sticking to these rules the winery will be allowed to present this on the label. The second category of quality of Italian wines would be: DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). Followed by IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica). Last category are the so called table wines, which have no rules and gives freedom to the winemaker but also indicates a lower quality. (Vino da Tavola)
If you have already a wine country of preference, it is easy to look up the countries quality system and you will be able to identify on the label, if this wine is a special product from this region. In general it is always a good sign if you can find the specific name of a region on the label. If the label just names the country. (ex.: France, Spain, Australia) it can mean that the winery uses grapes from different regions or grape producers to create the wine.
The more specific the origin of the grapes the more high quality your wine will be. As terroir, soil, climate is crucial for the character of the wine.
It’s always good if you find a vintage, year of production on the label. If not it can mean that the winery used wine from several years to mix together and bottle it. If you have the vintage on the label its a sign of identity and uniqueness. Also important for white wine lovers: White wine can not be stored for so long as red wine. Especially not in supermarket conditions where we have constant light exposure and too high temperatures. So if the white wine has already too many years and the quality is not high enough it can be spoiled and not so fresh and crispy any longer. So keep an eye on that.
4. Bottle number
Small producers, who are creating high quality wines, tend to mention the number of bottles they produced of this wine on their label. This is a definite quality sign and tells you how rare this wine is and indicates that the production is very small and well taken care of. You may not find this reference on supermarket wine labels as they always need a high quantity to supply a whole chain of supermarkets. But in wine shops it’s definitely present.
Another good indicator for quality: if the wine label says: “Estate bottled”, it means that the winery itself bottled the wine. A very positive sign.
5. Grape Variety
Every grape variety, which means the type of grape, has its own characteristics, aromas and flavours. Every country has its own autochtone varieties. For example Portugal has 250 of its own local varieties. The most typical Portuguese red variety is called Touriga Nacional, which gives full bodied red wines. Typical flavours of this variety are plum, violet, blueberry, mint and wet slate.
So as soon as you find your favorite grape variety, which suits your aroma perception you already know what to look for. Mixing different grape types in one wine is called a blend or cuvée. Winemakers are like designers. Mixing different grape varieties creates balanced wines and gives possibilities for creativity, uniqueness. A very common cuvée in France is the combination of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. As the Cabernet gives depth and full body, while the Pinot Noir gives fruitiness and lightness. It’s all about balance.
So I hope you have a clearer mind now and you are ready for the wine jungle. And let’s be honest: there are worse things than trying as much wine as you can, until you discover your preferences. Learning by drinking.