Wine Label Lingo

Does the terminology used on American wine labels read like a foreign language to you? We already covered a French wine label (click here for that article). Well, you have lots of company. Most of it is prominently placed to entice the consumer, but can have the opposite effect when the buyer has no clue what the words mean. Here’s some of the language, and its real meanings. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates these terms to assist the consumer in making informed choices when buying wine.

Estate Bottled: 100 percent of the wine must come from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, and the winery and vineyard must be in the same viticultural area. The winery must crush and ferment the grapes, and finish, age, and bottle the wine in a continuous process on the premises. In other words, the winery grew the grapes, made the wine, and did it all on-site. This is a prestigious designation, but not a guarantee of quality. The TTB has allowed the term “Estate Grown” to be used as a synonym for Estate Bottled, but this may be amended in the future.

Gluten-Free: TTB current interim policy allows the term “gluten-free” on wines that are produced from grapes without any added ingredients that contain gluten.

100% Organic: Wines that are produced from grapes that are certified 100 percent organically grown, and do not have any added sulfites.

Organic: Wines made from grapes that are organically farmed. At least 95 percent of the ingredients are from certified organic sources with no more than 100 ppm of sulfur dioxide added.

Made with Organic Grapes: Wines in which at least 70 percent of grapes are from certified organic sources, and may have sulfur dioxide added as well.

Single Vineyard: At least 95 percent of the grapes must be grown in that vineyard.

Cuvée: A fancy French word that means the wine was blended from different vineyards, different vintages, or different barrels within the winery’s cellar.

Unfined: A wine that has not been treated with a clarifying process, such as the addition of egg white or bentonite to remove suspended solids. A marketing term used by wineries to imply better quality or to explain why the wine has a slight cloudy appearance.

Unfiltered: Filtration of wine is a process that removes sediment and dead yeast cells. A fashionable term that implies the wine has not been stripped of flavor and complexity by filtration. Many consumers perceive unfiltered wines as preferable, but it’s not a guarantee of quality or superiority.

Terms that are basically meaningless or not defined and delineated by the TTB: Proprietor’s Blend or Winemaker’s Selection (could be the best barrels or the worst barrels); Reserve, Winemaker’s Reserve, Special Reserve, Limited Reserve (implies a special selection from the winery’s production, but could be 1 percent or 50 percent); Old Vine (implies a better wine, but the term is vague and how old is old?); Barrel Select (suggests the best barrels were selected, but could be any barrels in the cellar).

I could go on and on, but I’m sure you’ve had enough wine geek information for one sitting. The most important guarantee of quality on a wine label is the name of the producer, but even that can be misleading. Many premium wineries offer a second label intended to be a more inexpensive and accessible bottling. The second label has a different name so that it does not detract from the prestigious flagship label. These second-tier wines may be crafted from declassified juice or grape sources that are not prime candidates for the winery’s premium bottlings. Invariably, these wines are inferior to the premium primary label wines, but they can be solid daily drinkers. Look for the fine print on the back label to find the primary winery name listed after “Produced and bottled by.”