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

Clue #3: Vintage

The third clue to understanding what the wine might be like is the year listed on the label – otherwise known as the vintage.  The vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested, not when the wine was released.  So what can the vintage tell you about a wine? Several things:

Firstly, most white wines should be drunk young so they are as fresh as possible – so look for vintages that are between 1 and 3 years old.  There are some whites that can age beautifully – two of my favorites are white Burgundies and the aromatic whites from Alsace – but in general, whites should be young and fresh.

Reds, on the other hand, can be drunk young, but often benefit from some age – although remember, the age of a wine alone is not an indication of quality. If you have an older red, and by older I mean 5 years or more, the tannins will soften and the wine will become more harmonious with time.  I'd recommend you decant an older red to let the air get into it and release the aromas and flavors that have been locked away.

Another point about vintage is that some years are better than others due to the specific weather conditions in the particular region that year.  To go back to what we were saying earlier about growing vegetables in your garden, your crop is going to be severely affected if there are floods or a drought during the growing season, and the same applies to grapes on a vine. 

Too much rain or not enough can cause problems for the ripening of the grapes, as can an untimely frost or freeze.  But when the weather behaves and nothing extreme occurs, it’s possible to have a good or even great vintage. 

Clue #4: Name of Producer

The fourth clue we are given from the wine label is the name of the winemaker or producer.  There are lots of popular names in wine which you might recognize – like Opus One in Napa or Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.  But if you come across a bottle you really love and have never heard of the winemaker, it’s a great idea to make a note so you can remember it in the future because chances are you’ll also enjoy other wines that producer makes.

If you come across a bottle you really love, make a note so you can remember it in the future because chances are you’ll also enjoy other wines that producer makes.

The key is that you record this information in the moment while you're drinking the wine, so you can look it up later.  There are lots of apps that let you log your notes and impressions (Delectable, Wine Notes, and even Evernote work well) so find one you like and are comfortable using, because even though you may not always have access to your computer when drinking wine,  you’ll most likely have your phone handy.

Just snap a photo of the label and record your thoughts about the wine – did you like it? Why or why not? You may also want to note where you bought it and how much it was for future reference.

Clue #5: Alcohol Content

The fifth and final clue you’ll find on a wine label is the percentage of alcohol.  If the alcohol content is 14% or higher, you will find yourself swaying pretty quickly. If you’re looking for a bottle to enjoy a glass or two on its own, choose one with lower alcohol content.  Also, wines with high alcohol will actentuate any spice in the food you're eating and may cause an uncomfortable burning sensation at the back of your throat (especially if the wine is out of balance).

So now you’re armed with 5 clues and a free downloadable cheat sheet to help unlock the mysteries on a wine label. Here’s to trying something new, learning something new, and enjoying every glass a whole lot more.

What terms have you found confusing on wine labels? Leave me a comment below – I’d love to help you decode them. Cheers!


Tara Devon O’Leary is a 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. Tara's advice is delivered with a dash of flair, heaps of enthusiasm, and zero snobbery.


Connect with Tara on Facebook and Twitter.

Grapes and decanter images courtesy of Shutterstock.


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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