The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

How to Decode Wine Labels

Posted on | February 24, 2016 | Written by Camacho Vidal | No Comments

Blog_Label Shots_1At one point or another while carousing through the local wine shop, we’ve all looked at a wine label and said, “What a cool label!” and purchased the wine. It’s human nature to like bright, shiny things. The label shows a lot about the wine producer and his or her personality, and sometimes it’s all we have to go on when deciding whether to buy a bottle or move on to the next one. However, as I become more and more passionate about wine, I’ve realized how important it is to look further than cool marketing. Labels can be very confusing and in some cases almost Da Vinci code-like, but they do contain information that helps make that buying decision. Depending on the country of origin, a wine’s label will hold various pertinent information like the country, vintage, producer, region, alcohol content and so on.

Some wineries give labels a lot of importance, while others do not. Some producers change their labels every vintage, while others have had the same label since they began bottling their precious juice. For example, Montevertine Le Pergole Torte is one of my favorite wines and labels. Sergio Manetti, the estate’s founder, hand selected each label, painted by artist Alberto Manfredi, an important figure of Italian painting and print-makers in Italy. There has been a new one each year since 1988, all of which features a woman’s face in a very attractive, Art Deco style. Manetti’s passion for his wine is evident in the labels he selects for that particular vintage.


Courtesy of

When I’m looking for a new wine, I narrow my search by deciding what I’m in the mood for and when I’m going to drink it—for dinner, easy drinking, or for exploring. I look at a label for a wide variety of criteria: Modern, traditional, grape varietal, country or producer. Some labels even provide tasting notes and vinification methods. But no matter what I’m drinking or how I’m basing my search, I stick with the basics and a few rules of thumb.

When available I look for the following:

09-PBB-Cab-BearThe wine name: This is usually displayed in the largest type-size and the most noticeable font. I still get a kick out of some of the fantasy names that come up. One of my recent favorites has been Pursued by Bear Cabernet Sauvignon from Columbia Valley California

The producer of the wine: There are more than 27,000 producers in Italy, so that’s not necessarily a help. However, you can always read our blog, our website and our eLetter offers for some guidance. If you’ve heard of them here, you know they’re good; of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like the wine. De gustibus non est disputandum, the Romans said, and they were right.

The wine region: This is important since I like to try to identify if the wine taste like it’s from that particular place. Italy we has 21 wine regions, and each of these has many sub-regions. For example, Piemonte is the larger region, and Barolo and Barbaresco are sub-regions. Sometimes you will see a label that combines the grapes with the region like Barbera D’ Alba, which tells you you’re drinking a Barbera from the Alba area of Piedmont. However, this information isn’t always helpful to Italian wine newbies. “Montepulciano” can be a grape or a place, but not the grape from the place (if it’s Montepulciano, the grape, it’s likely from Abruzzo, and if it’s Montepulicano the wine or the place, it’s likely Sangiovese).


Courtesy of Wine Words Wisdom

Grape Varietals:Knowing what varietals and whether it’s a blend or single varietal can be very helpful in making a decision. Last I read Italy has approximately 2,700 indigenous grape varietals. Some of the most recognizable red grapes are Sangiovese, Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo, just to name a few. My favorite is Sangiovese Grosso, which is the sole grape used in Brunello. But just because you’ve never heard of a grape doesn’t mean you won’t love it!

The vintage: The year of the wine is always important of cores. A minimum of 85% of the wine must be from grapes harvested in the vintage stated, according to Italian wine laws. Having a thumbnail concept of what years are banner, bust or sleeper can really aid you in deciding on a wine.

The wine’s denomination. In Italy we have three main designations (DOC, DOCG, IGT)—or none at all. DOC is the most common; DOCG is the most regulated; and IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) are less regulated wines that often refer to non-traditional wines such as Super Tuscans, so an IGT can be an extraordinary bottle. An additional designation such as Riserva means that the wine was aged longer than usual and made according to higher legal production standards.


Courtesy of Terlato Wines, Intl.

Distributer/Importer:Maybe it’s because I’m in the industry but I find myself looking at the importer. I have found that if you like a few wines from an importer you like that palate and you can expect that name to introduce you to great wine

After these basic pieces of information, you can get more and more specific with points like whether the wine was bottled at the estate and/or if the grapes are from a cooperative and much more. The more you get into wine, the more there is to get into.

The only thing that I do not pay attention to is ratings. I like to discover on my own and stay away from the herd mentality. In today’s age, there are plenty of apps that you can use on your smart phone that gather all this information for you by just taking a picture. I find this useful and fun especially if I’m adding notes but nothing beats holding a bottle and deciphering it for yourself.


Leave a Reply