Grapevine: Be Wary of the Information on a Wine Label

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

What is the first description you seek out on a wine label? Is it on the front label? The rear? And which term have you trained yourself to capture, the one that transmits data from your eye to your cerebrum as an attractor or a detractor, to tempt you to proceed further in selecting the wine for purchase?

Conversely, which descriptor or term do you seek out last? The single fact that is not of significant interest to your purchase decision – or your enjoyment of a particular wine?

This week I’m focusing on the latter category, and a term that at times is difficult to find on the front or back label.

Not that the terms in the first category – most influential – do not warrant a discussion of their own. Hardly so. There are many confusing terms on wine labels that we attempt to absorb and interpret. I am focusing on California wines in this column, but other states and countries have their own sets of regulations.

  1. Simply because a wine label states the grape varietal, if it does at all, is not a de facto statement of fact. Cabernet Sauvignon on an American wine label may indicate that the contents are comprised solely of this varietal, or that, by law, it is simply the dominant grape in the wine bottle.

For example, California wine regulations stipulate that any wine sold which is 75 percent or more of a single varietal may carry that grape name on its label without disclosing the other grapes used to blend with it. That leaves significant leeway to winemakers seeking to produce their own distinctive wines, while still appealing to a particular consumer sensibility. That Cabernet Sauvignon mentioned above may have one or more additional grapes added to the bottle.

  1. A Napa Valley designation on the label indicates that a minimum of 85 percent of the grapes were grown in that broad geographic area. The remainder may have been sourced elsewhere.
  2. Vintage? There is a 5 to 15 percent leeway in blending different vintages into a wine, depending on where the grapes were sourced.

While the perceived definition of the above terms may be disconcerting to some, winemakers have been given regulatory leeway, ostensibly to produce the best wine for retail sales.

On to the term that many consumers seek out last.

The one label fact I find receives the least attention, when compared to other label terms, is alcohol content. While important, many consumers are not as concerned regarding the alcohol levels in wine as compared to hard spirits. All alcohol consumption is potentially dangerous and should be diligently monitored – on the label and in the glass.

Just as there are regulations governing the label statements for grape varietals, origins and vintage, so too are there for alcohol content. And just as there is leeway for other wine terms on a label, so too are there for alcohol content.

By regulation, wines of 14 percent alcohol content or lower are allowed a variance of 1.5 percent. Above 14 percent, a variation of 1 percent is permitted. That Cabernet Sauvignon referred to above may have a stated alcohol content of 13 percent, but an actual level of up to 14 percent. Likewise, a number of California Zinfandels with stated alcohol of 14.1 percent may be alcohol bombs of up to 15 percent.

When disclosing alcohol content, such a variation may be the borderline between sobriety and inebriation for some. The Alcohol Research Group in California found that two glasses of 15 percent wine have a similar effect on the average person as three glasses of 12 percent wine.

Next week I’ll report on the results of a study that analyzed the actual alcohol, compared to the stated level on the labels, of over 100,000 wines. Higher or lower than the stated level? And why? Stay tuned. This study also addressed other phenomena contributing to the recent rise in the alcohol content in a number of wines.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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