What is the first thing that catches your eye when making a decision on buying a wine? Overwhelmingly, the answer is “the label”. Some labels are fun and fanciful with catchy names and quirky pictures, while others are more refined and classic, with elegant fonts and an air of sophistication.
With tens of thousands of wine labels in the marketplace, they all have one thing in common; they are regulated by the government. The label on a wine bottle is full of legal and government requirements as mandated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). These requirements have been established to protect the consumer and to give them more information when choosing a wine. There are a few mandatory words or statements that must be on every bottle, while other words or statements are added at the discretion of the winery.
MANDATORY LABEL INFORMATION
Brand Name – The brand name is used to identify and market a wine. A brand name may not mislead the consumer about the age, identity, origin or other characteristics of the wine.
Class, Type or Other Designation – This refers to the varietal designation of the wine, or in other words the dominant grape used in the wine. Zinfandel, Merlot and Chardonnay are examples of grape varieties. If using a varietal designation on the label, the appellation of origin must also be present. Amador County, Napa Valley and Sonoma are examples of appellastions. When an appellation is stated, this means that at least 75% of the grapes used to make the wine are of that variety, and that the entire 75% were grown in the labeled appellation (the rules are expanded if a vintage is added). Wine labels are not required to bear a varietal designation and other designations may be used to identify the wine, such as “Red Wine”, “Rose Wine”, “White Wine” or “Table Wine”.
Alcohol Content – The most commonly see statement of the alcohol content is shown as a percent by volume. This type of statement is mandatory when a wine is over 14% alcohol by volume. Wines with an alcohol content from 7 to 14 percent may indicate on the label “Table Wine” or “Light Wine”. This designates the wine at below a 14% alcohol by volume.
Net Contents – The net contents of a wine container must be stated in metric units of measure. Wine must be bottled in 50 ml, 100 ml, 187 ml, 375 ml, 500 ml, 750 ml (standard), 1 L, 1.5 L, or 3 L sizes. Containers over 3 liters must be bottled in quantities of even liters. No other sizes may be bottled.
Name and Address – A label on each container of American wine shall state either “bottled by” or “packed by” followed by the name of the bottler or packer and the address of the place where the wine was bottled or packed.
Declaration of Sulfites – There shall be stated on a front label, back label, strip label or neck label, the statement “Contains sulfites” or “Contains (a) sulfiting agent(s)” or a statement identifying the specific sulfiting agent where sulfur dioxide or a sulfiting agent is detected at a level of 10 or more parts per million, measured as total sulfur dioxide. This statement is required on all wines intended for interstate commerce. Not required for wines only sold in intrastate commerce.
Health Warning Statement – All wines produced in the United States must have the government warning printed on the label. In 1988, Congress enacted the law that requires this warning statement appear on all labels. The TTB is responsible for the specific font, format and wording of this statement.
OPTIONAL LABEL INFORMATION
Vintage Date – A vintage date on the label indicates the year in which the grapes were harvested. If a vintage date is shown on the label at all, an appellation of origin smaller than a country must also be shown. If an American or imported wine uses a State or county, or the foreign equivalent, as a political appellation of origin (i.e. Amador County or Napa Valley), 85% of the grapes must be from that year, with 75% being from that political appellation. If a wine is labeled as a designated viticulture appellation (i.e. Shenandoah Valley or Napa Valley) or the foreign equivalent is used, 95% of the grapes must be from that particular vintage and 85% must be from the designated viticulture appellation.
Estate Bottled – This means that 100 percent of the wine came from grapes grown on land owned or controlled by the winery, which must be located in a viticultural area. The winery must crush and ferment the grapes and finish, age and bottle the wine in a continuous process on their premises. The winery and the vineyard must be in the same viticultural area.
Reserve – There is no legal definition of the word “reserve” but in the wine industry it is used to imply that the wine is of higher quality or has been aged longer before being sold. Reserve can also imply that limited quantities were produced or that the winemaker believes the vineyard the grapes came from is superior in one way or another.
Old Vines – Like “reserve”, there is no legal definition of “Old Vine”. It is commonly agreed in the wine industry that “old vines” are those that have been producing over 50 years. Read more about old vines in our blog “How Do You Define Old?“
The next time you pick up a bottle of wine, look past the pretty pictures and fancy fonts and take a moment to get to know the wine. While most of the writing is there to “protect the consumer” the information provided on the label can also tell you a lot about the wine, who made it and where it comes from.