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How to Read a Wine Label

The label of a wine can tell you many things about the juice in the bottle, but if you're just beginning your wine education, it can be difficult to understand what you're reading. I asked our resident wine expert, Jennifer Ingellis, what information drinkers can glean from the label – specifically, from the alcohol content and the vintage – and here's what she had to say.

Q: What is considered high or low alcohol, and what does the alcohol level indicate?

A: Low alcohol is anything under 12%. Riesling, Muscadet and Vinho Verde are examples of wines with low alcohol content. Typically, these wines are great as aperitifs and are more refreshing in the summer than higher alcohol wines. The lower alcohol also signifies that the wine is fresher and lighter in texture and body.

Average alcohol wine ranges from 12.5% to 13.9%. Most wines fall into this category, especially those that come from cooler climates, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, New Zealand or Germany.

Higher alcohol wine is at 14.0% or higher. Warmer climates like Spain, Portugal, California and Australia produce riper fruit, with higher sugar content, which in turn produces higher alcohol wines. If the body of the wine is not rich enough to absorb the alcohol, the wine will seem unbalanced, with an alcoholic "burn" on the finish. However, if the fruit is rich enough to support the higher level of alcohol, the wine will have a decidedly warm finish and be quite enjoyable.

Q: Does vintage matter when picking out a bottle of wine?

A: Vintage indicates what to expect in regards to fruit, color and secondary/tertiary notes, so yes, it matters very much. For example, a $14 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc that's more than 2 years old will no longer be fresh and vibrant.

Q: So contrary to popular belief, an older wine may not always better?

An older wine is not better in all cases. The varietal and price point will determine whether a bit of age is a good thing or not. A wine bought for $20 or less is typically made to drink now, not for aging. However, wines that have been aged in oak barrels for a significant amount of time will often need a bit of time for the oak to integrate into the wine and for the firm tannin structure to mellow.

For example, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon aged in new oak barrels upon release will be better after it's aged for a few years. There are wine regions and wineries around the world that take care of the aging for customers, only releasing their wines when they think they're ready to be consumed. These wines tend to be pricier.