I saw an interesting column this week about what to look for on a wine label and thought I would “weigh in” as well.
I spend a fair amount of time in wine stores, and can’t believe how many times I see the same thing – someone looking at a bottle of wine, turning it over and over, trying to figure out whether to buy it or not! For me, the key – like anything in wine – is knowing what style you like and then building off of that to understand what is on the label (and therefore in the bottle).
What do I mean by that? Well let’s see…
Starting with white wines, a couple of key questions:
• Do you like your whites bone dry or a touch sweet?
• Do you like oaked wines or not?
For the first question, if the answer is “bone dry”, then you probably want to avoid the German/Alsace varietals – Riesling, Gewurtztraminer. Most of the best of these wines are finished at least a little bit sweet. They will usually be rated a (1) on the shelf marker. Really ripe white wines – like Viognier from North America – you might also want to avoid, as their incredible fruitiness can come off as sweet even when it isn’t.
For the oak question, if the answer is “yes”, then go for oak aged Chardonnays, Semillon/Sauvignon blends, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. The label will say there is oak aging on the back, so it is easy to find out. If the answer is ‘no’ to oak, then go for un-oaked versions of the above. Many – in particular Chardonnays – will say “un-oaked” right on the label, and/or talk about being aged in stainless steel (like Chablis from Burgundy).
And what about reds? There are three questions to consider about the style of wine that you like:
• Do you like oak or not?
• Do you like your reds more “fruit-forward” or with more herbs and wood flavours?
• What is the alcohol level?
The first question is the same as for whites, although maybe even more important for red wines! Oak impacts red grapes in vastly different ways, which can also really change the style of the wine. For Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz, it can give a wonderful vanilla overlay and/or a cedary, woody flavor. The same for Pinot Noir. Interestingly, the impact can be even greater on Malbec and Grenache, taking much of the overt fruitiness away from these wines. Almost all wine labels – on the back – will talk about how much oak is used, so that can be a guide for you.
If you don’t like oak, you either need to look for the few red wines without it…or those that don’t seem to show the influence very much. For the former, Malbec is a great bet (the unoaked kind, of course) and can be a great deal. For the latter, wines from the Cotes du Rhone (Syrah and Grenache-based), as well as many Italian wines (like Chiantis, Brunellos, Barolos, and Barbarescos) are good choices. Ironically, many of these are more expensive alternatives and/or quite tannic when young, so look for the lower end Chiantis and Cotes du Rhones.
Fruit forward or not? California, Australia and certain BC wines are more fruit forward, meaning the fruit should be more prominent than the wood influences (whether vanilla or cedar). For Cabernet Sauvignons, that can mean vanilla-covered blackcurrants; for Merlots, super ripe plums, and for Shiraz jammy blackberries. Bordeaux and Burgundy go to the other style, meaning you will get more wood and herbal flavours in your wine.
Finally, alcohol level. Assuming your wine isn’t sweet (like Port), the higher the alcohol, the fruitier the wine, as the ripe fruit has more sugar which is turned into more alcohol. Sometimes the wine can also seem unbalanced because of the alcohol, but if done right these are the epitome of what fruit-forward wine drinkers are looking for.
So there you go! Know your style, and then look for the clues on the label to tell you what is there. Do that, and you will have an easier time understanding the bottle you are looking at in the store.
Tags: alcohol, Australia, Barbaresco, Barolo, Bordeaux, Cabernet, California, Chablis, Chardonnay, cotes du rhone, dry, Food, Food; restaurants; wine, fruit, Grenache, Malbec, Pinot Noir, red wines, Rhone, Riesling, Shiraz, style, sweet, Syrah, tannins in wine, white wines, wine labels