How to read a wine bottle

February 1, 2011

When you're in a wine store looking for a new wine to try, what catches your eye: fancy bottle? Colorful label? When you pick one up for closer examination, what do you see? There's more information in your hand than you might realize. That bottle is trying to communicate with you.

We look first to the labels, of course. The producer's name might resonate only if you've had the wine before or know the winery's reputation. But a family name suggests pride in the product and perhaps generations of winemaking experience. In contrast, a brand such as the popular critter wines (Yellow Tail) or silly names such as Old Fart or Mommy's Time Out suggest marketing. I avoid wines that sound as if they were produced in a conference room rather than a vineyard.

With foreign wines, the most important information is the name of the importer. If you like a wine, note the importer's name, and look for other wines from that portfolio. For extra value, look for local importers. Some of my favorites: Kacher, Kysela, Dionysus, Country Vintner and Siema. Others that tend to be harder to find but also of high quality are Downey, Wine Traditions, Vintage 59, Ansonia, Simon 'N' Cellars, Potomac Selections, Grapes of Spain and Vin de Terra. National importers to look for include Touton, Winebow, Kermit Lynch, Jorge Ordonez and Vineyard Brands.

Vintage matters. It pays to know that 2009 was a great year in France and elsewhere. In fact, Wine Enthusiast magazine rates that year highly in every wine country except the United States (where it was merely above average).

Look for values. Collectors obsess about vintages, so we know to drink the soft, accessible 2006 Burgundies while waiting for our more massive 2005s to mature.

For American consumers, grape variety is crucial. Sometimes we just want a glass of chardonnay. Many imported wines do not list the grape variety, so we need to know that Brunello is sangiovese and Barolo is nebbiolo. Cheaper wines today increasingly do name the grape varieties; many Burgundy producers, for example, no longer assume U.S. consumers know that a red Bourgogne is pinot noir or that a white is chardonnay. And for some of us, the more obscure the grape, the better.

Place of origin is important. In general, the more specific the place identifier, the more singular the wine. (That does not guarantee you will like it.)

Do you look at the alcohol level? Many people do because of a backlash against monster, high-alcohol wines. The alcohol listed on a wine label is imprecise for regulatory reasons, but it does give an indication of style, though not of quality. A higher-alcohol wine - say, 14 percent or more - will be more powerful and richer in body and might taste sweeter. Some high-alcohol wines have won acclaim from critics and prompted many imitators, but rarely is an imitation successful. The problem is that high alcohol levels are not hard to achieve, but the proper balance with fruit and acidity can prove elusive. And successful copies tend to be expensive.

Some label information is worthless. Government warnings: Are you really going to drive a forklift after dinner? And if you're pregnant or allergic to sulfites, you probably already know to avoid wine. As for that "handmade," "perfectly ripened" and "excellent with all kinds of food" marketing fluff, you're intelligent enough to make up your own mind.

Finally, how heavy is that bottle in your hand? Some wineries use ridiculously thick, heavy ones to impress you with their seriousness. Wouldn't you rather the winery put more effort into the wine you'll drink than the bottle you'll recycle?

That bottle is speaking to you. Are you listening?

Dave McIntyre is a wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com.
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