(Photo: with Opus One’s Director of viticulture & enology and chief winemaker, Michael Silacci)

-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-

More people choose wines by their labels than anyone would like to admitting it. Novices reach for colourful eye-catching labels, snobs demand famous names. In fact, a wine label reveals a great deal about the flavours in the bottle. You can begin your tasting even before you’ve pulled the cork.

Although each country has its own laws regarding wine labels, basically there are three kinds of labels: varietal-based, terroir-based and sheer fantasy. The information they offer, much of it required by law, overlaps to a large extent, each one reflects a different approach to winemaking.

Have you ever bought a Chardonnay? Then you’re already familiar with the varietal approach; wines named for the grape variety that makes up all (or some legally defined minimum) of the juice in the bottle. California pioneered this method and most of the New World producers have adopted it. However, some European wine regions such as Alsace in France, Friuli in Italy, for example have traditionally followed this approach.

Most European wines, however, use terroir-based labelling. Terroir is a French word that explains all the physical factors – its soil, exposure, microclimate, etc that distinguish a given vineyard or a wine region. These wines may be made from a single grape variety (such as Pinot Noir for red wines in Burgundy) or a blend that may vary by vintage (such as Bordeaux’s judicious mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc).

Some winemakers have found themselves so frustrated by local wine regulations which may dictate certain grape blends or vinification techniques as prerequisites to obtaining labels, whether based on varietal or terroir, they abandon traditional approaches and use labels based simply on fantasy. In Tuscany, producers determined to make new-style wines abandoned the terroir-based Chianti labels for the humble designation vino da tavola (table wine). In California, winemakers working with the grapes and flexible blending approach of Bordeaux have given up some varietal-based labels to bottle “Meritage” wines.

Each kind of label gives different clues to the wine inside the bottle, but all labels include a few basics. For example, the producer’s name is always prominent. Most wineries develop consistent signatures, based on their location, winemaking skills and marketing goals; once you’re familiar with a winery’s profile, the producer’s name is perhaps the most reliable indicator of wine style and quality.

The wine’s vintage is almost always shown, too. If you’re familiar with the vintages of a given region, this can be a telling indicator–red Bordeaux were mostly light and diluted in 1992, but rich and concentrated in 1990. However, even if you don’t know whether a specific vintage was good or bad, knowing how old a wine indicates something about its current state: young, fresh and fruity, or older, smoother and more complex. Most whites, and many reds, are best within three years of the vintage; wines that age well increase in price over time. But beware of old, inexpensive wines that don’t improve with age.

Most labels indicate the region where the grapes were grown and the wine made. On terroir-based labels, this factor is particularly emphasized: The Burgundian appellations of Nuits-St.-Georges and Vosne-Romanée, for example, are more or less homogenous and distinctive vineyard areas that at least in theory, impart recognizable character to their wines, especially since appellation laws generally regulate many aspects of grape growing and wine making. Varietal-based labels also generally indicate appellations (though often in small type), sometimes right down to the name of the vineyard. But in these production areas regulation tends to be much looser so wines from the same appellation tend to have less in common. Fantasy labels often avoid any mention of the origin at all (sometimes the laws won’t permit their indication). Since these wines deliberately break with the traditions of their regions, origin doesn’t mean that much anyway.

What about the descriptions on labels? You will never read one like this: “Due to poor weather conditions this vintage was difficult and the resultant wine is not recommended for cellaring”.

No, you get: “This delicate table wine shows outstanding fruit balanced by natural acid. It may be enjoyed now”. That is not to criticize all descriptions, many producers are reputable and their descriptions are authentic and useful reference especially for the beginners.

Wineries put a lot of effort into dressing up their labels. Savvy wine lovers can decipher what the law says they must say, what the producers want to say and sometimes more than they intend to say. Spend some time studying labels before you buy and you’ll increase your chances of finding a quality wine for your money.

Finally, don’t forget the price tag, stuck right there next to the label. Yes, there may be wide disparities between a wine’s cost and its quality.

If you are spending under Rs 1500 per bottle, the wine is likely to be simple, offering alcohol as its principal virtue. From Rs 1500 to Rs 4000, most wines offer fresh fruit, enough structure to marry well with food and some individual personality. You should be prepared to pay at least over Rs 4000 if you expect complex flavours of ripe fruit and new oak, enough concentration to develop with aging and a distinctive character stamped with the wine’s creator and origin but unfortunately there are no sought-after “collectors” wines available in wine shops in Sri Lanka at the moment.