Wine Labels: A Sticky Situation


Wine labels are unnecessarily confusing. A few changes would make them more consumer friendly and help facilitate sales.


By Lou Marmon


Gazette Newspapers  October 23, 2013


Wine labels are funny things. With the hundreds of unique winemaking varietals, numerous different methods and an entire world of distinctive regions, you would think that wine labels would be designed to be models of clarity in order to assist a consumer in making an educated purchase. If only that were true.

It is unusual to see European wine labeled with the name of the grapes in the bottle, despite the fact that many in the American market would like to know that information. Instead a Bordeaux or Burgundy label notes the name of the property (“Chateau” or “Domaine”) and has a smattering of French that tells such fundamentally useless stuff to the average consumer like where the wine was bottled. Italian and Spanish wines mostly follow this pattern. And don’t even get me started about German wine labeling which require an advanced language degree to comprehend.

The casual wine drinker may not be aware that Chablis and other white Burgundies are made from Chardonnay, Beaujolais from Gamay, Nebbiolo is the principle grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, Tempranillo dominates in Rioja, and wines from Bordeaux are most commonly a blend of up to five varietals, while the southern Rhone region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape permits the blending of up to 13 different grapes. And that is just the beginning of a long and confusing list.

American origin wine labels are better but still can be incomplete and misleading. US Department of Treasury regulations permit the use of a single varietal name, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, on the label as long as at least 75 percent of the wine is made from that varietal and it all originates from a single location (appellation). What composes the other 25 percent is left to the imagination or a search on the winery’s website. And the wine’s alcohol content can be equally as vague since the number on the label and the actual alcohol by content (ABV) may vary by law. So a wine listed as 13.3 percent ABV may really range from 11.8 to 14 percent, while those stated as 14 percent may truly be 15 percent. Doesn’t look like much but alcohol content is important to many consumers since it implies a certain style of winemaking and knowing the ABV may influence purchasing decisions.

Another issue is the use of undefined terms on the label such as “reserve” and “barrel select.” What exactly does “old vines” mean? 25 years? 50 years? Older than the winemaker? And how much of the wine needs to originate from these vines to achieve this designation? The Treasury Department has been considering tightening the use of such terms since 2010 and are scheduled to make a decision sometime next year. Until any new regulations are implemented, we will still see nebulous jargon including “estate bottled” and “old clones” on the front of bottles

The label on the back of the bottle can be more helpful by providing further information about the grapes, location and winemaking approach. But sometimes they are just meaningless marketing stories matching the misinformation seen elsewhere on the bottle.

Many labels are creative and entertaining, adorned with artwork, animal illustrations, and even braille or “scratch and sniff” stickers that may entice a purchase of an unfamiliar bottle. Some wineries haven’t ever changed their labels while others replace their designs annually. Clearly front labels are critical to wine marketing,  but is there any reason why they cannot be more accurate and informative? We all would benefit from a bit more clarity regarding the varietals, ABV and the terms on the front label, which could only enhance consumer’s comfort and facilitate sales.

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