Buying a wine based solely on your favorable reaction to its label is like buying a car (or a couch, or pair of skis...whatever) based on how groovy you think its color or shape is. After all, would you be willing to try a new brand of cereal or a sports drink just because you found the package extra scintillating? Maybe, but if you're really being honest, you'd likely turn the package over, review the ingredients, glance at the nutritional information, and maybe even find out where it was made before tossing it into your cart.
To be fair, wine labels are decidedly trickier to decipher than your average box of Kashi. For one thing, Old World labels are likely to be written in one of the Romance languages which, maddeningly enough, you don't speak. Then there are all of those mysterious terms, numbers, and abbreviations that may as well be a mix of hieroglyphics and Latin. To add insult to injury, chances are you're trying to figure out what the hell all this mumbo-jumbo means in the crowded, over-merchandised aisle of the Superduper Liquors. But before you reach for the bottle whose label depicts a vacation-inspiring image of a beach chair nestled in the sand, remember: All that stands between you and discovering a truly great bottle is a little time spent in the pursuit of wine label mastery.
As with most journeys you'll embark upon throughout your quest for wine knowledge, it's best to start with a single step. It's probably clear by now that if you're a fan of wines from California, Australia or Oregon that you've got a distinct head start over those of you with a thing for terroir-driven (aka, the unique aspects of a geographic location that influences and shapes the wine made from it) wines from Europe. Don't get it twisted, though; there's plenty of valuable (and commonly misunderstood) info to be gleaned from a wine label even if it's written in the Queen's English.
For the sake of this conversation, let's go crazy and start with the more complicated of the two - Old World. What you'll soon discover is that within most Old World wine producing regions (France, Spain, Italy, etc.) the terminology on the labels tends to be pretty similar. But what you really need to realize is that when it comes to wine from Europe, it's all about location, location, location.
Old World winemakers (and as such, their labels) emphasize the place where their grapes were grown more than any other detail. Why? Because they believe that the specific terroir of their region is what makes the wines so unique. The location of the wine's origin is closely aligned with the perceived quality of the juice that's made its way into that bottle (at least as it's defined by that particular country's wine classification system).
Here are a few ways to slice and dice your foray into the mastery of Old World wine labels:
• Start with the country whose wines you're most crazy about (or would like to be) and begin to study their labeling styles in earnest. If you're positively giddy about German Rieslings, then you'll probably want to know that their labels are trying to tell you whether the wines are 'trocken' (dry) or 'trockenbeerenauslese' (über-sweet). A pretty significant distinction, although the terms themselves don't appear to be that different (if you don't speak German, that is). Similarly, if all you crave are big Spanish reds, think how helpful it'll be to know that part of the reason why that Jean Leon Gran Riserva 1999 you've been eying costs twice the price of the Riserva, is because it had to spend a minimum of five years aging (indicated by the labeling term 'gran riserva'), versus the three mandated for wines labeled 'riserva.' How cool is that?
• Think about your favorite varietal, then read up on the Old World regions (and their labels) to recognize the areas that produce them. Loving pinot noir? You could investigate Italy, where you'd discover bottles hailing from the region of Alto Adige are going to be filled with some fantastic pinot neros; or parle français and realize that every time you see a bottle labeled with the terms 'Bourgogne Côte de Nuits' from Burgundy, France you're going to be drinking the exact same grape: pinot noir.
• If you're all about drinking only top-notch juice, then learn to recognize the European wine label acronyms, which denote quality wine-producing regions: France's AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), Italy's DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or the DO (Denominación de Origen), which hails from Spain. Knowing which wines have been deemed worthy enough to bear these stamps is a great way to narrow in on some of the best bottles available for your wine-buying buck.
You're not gonna let a little Italian or some unfamiliar terms stop you from trying some of the most delightful tasting, greatest-value wines out there, are you? I didn't think so.