5 Clues to Decoding a Wine Label

With so many wines to choose from, how do you know which ones you're going to like? The wine label has 5 clues that will give you an idea of how the wine will taste. Wine expert Tara Devon O'Leary explains. Plus - download our awesome Grape Variety Decoder, for free!

Tara Devon O'Leary
6-minute read

An average wine shop has upwards of 500 different wines on the shelf. Add those to the millions more available from online retailers and it’s no wonder people feel confused and overwhelmed when buying wine!

So how do you decide? If you’re like most, you’ll read the label. This may help in certain cases, but many wines have a lot of marketing chatter on the labels, while others provide no information at all.  But regardless of what it says on the back of the bottle, there are several other clues we can find on a wine label that will give us an idea of how the wine will taste so we can make easy, confident, decisions.

Here are 5 clues to decoding a wine label:

Clue #1: Grape Variety

When the grape varieties are listed on the label, they are your best clue to understanding what the wine will be like.  If it’s a common grape like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Grigio you’re likely to have had it before and will already have a general sense of the characteristics of the grape variety which will help you make an informed guess as to the wine’s style. There’s no guarantee, however, as winemakers’ personal styles vary. But in general, knowing the grape variety is a good start.  And when the grape variety isn't listed? That's where the next clues come in (read on to get your downloadable Grape Variety Decoder!)

Clue #2: Geographic Region

When the grape variety isn’t listed, or if you don’t automatically know what to expect from the grape style, it’s still possible suss out some information from the second clue on the label – the region where the wine comes from. 

Knowing the region where the wine is from can tell us the grape variety of the wine if it’s not listed. But in order to decipher that info, it means we need to know which grape varieties are used in particular areas. This pertains mainly to wines from the Old World like France, Italy, and Spain where the region is synonymous with the grape variety. If your wine is from one of the New World countries like the U.S., Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, etc., you’re in luck because they tend to take the guesswork out of it and list the variety along with the region on the label.

Let’s go back to those confusing Old World wine labels. If you don’t already know that the grape variety of a bottle of white Burgundy will always be 100% Chardonnay, you can still glean some information about the wine by considering the weather of the country.

What do I mean? Well, if you’ve ever grown vegetables in your garden, you’ll know that the weather conditions are a big factor in how your crop ripens and how the flavors develop. It’s the same with wine. 

For example, Germany has a cool climate. It can warm up in the summer, but for the most part, it’s cool to downright freezing. Wines from cool climates will have more green, herbaceous characters, as well as more acidity and lower alcohol content than wines from a warm climate like in parts of Australia where the wines will have more ripe, juicy fruit, and higher alcohol.

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m supposed to remember all the different weather patterns and grape varieties in all the different countries that make wine?”

Don’t worry. I’ve got you covered!

I've created a downloadable Grape Variety Decoder! Download this 2-page cheat sheet which lists the names you'll see on wine labels and their corresponding grape varieties. Take it with you when you go wine shopping and you can buy confidently!



About the Author

Tara Devon O'Leary

Tara is a former sommelier, author of the popular blog WinePassionista.com, and co-host of the online wine show “The Punch Down.” Tara holds a diploma certification from the world-renowned Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) where she is also a Certified Educator. She is accredited by the Society of Wine Educators as a Certified Specialist of Wine, is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers, and has served as judge at major annual international wine competitions.

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