Despite being told by my mother to “never judge a book by its cover,” buying a bottle of wine you aren’t familiar with involves just that, making decisions purely by the information you see on the front or back label of the bottle. Historically, in places like Europe, the appearance of a wine bottle was closely monitored. What appeared on the label, what the label looked like, and even the shape of the bottle had meaning—guiding consumers to the nature of the wine inside the bottle.
These days, marketing has a bit more sway over the information presented on the label, although certain things are still required for wines of any quality, especially if they are exported to other countries. Most countries insist on a vintage indicating from which year the grapes were grown. Exceptions to this include some types of port, non-vintage champagne, and other sparkling wines. In theory, vintage should guide the consumer to select better vintages for purchase and when to drink a certain bottle. Most wines are released ready to drink and won’t benefit from further long-term aging of more than a couple of years in a cellar. As a collector, you’ll know what vintages you want anyway, and, in my opinion, there are very few bad vintages these days. There are plenty of good vintages, some great vintages, and many ways to improve the quality of mediocre vintages to make better wines.
Wine labels will have a statement somewhere on the label telling the consumer how much alcohol is present in the wine. Normally expressed as a percentage or “Alcohol by Volume” (ABV), this is a valuable clue as to the character or flavor of the wine inside. Alcohol in wine is made by fermenting sugar (in the grapes) into alcohol, so less alcohol in the wine can mean more sweetness—right? Sometimes. Most wines are made in a dry style with most of the sugar fermented into alcohol, and the resulting wines aren’t perceivably sweet, although some sugar will remain. Look at a few hundred different bottles of red wine from around the world, and you’ll note that virtually all of them are between 12.5 percent and 15 percent ABV at the high end.
Virtually all red table wines are considered dry which means they don’t taste sweet. With white wines, the normal range of alcohol content is a little lower, but once you start seeing wines with less than 11 percent alcohol, the wines will start tasting sweet. A perfect example of this is German riesling; at 10.5 percent, the wine will have a noticeable sweetness; at 8 percent, there is no denying it’s sweet, and, with alcohol levels less than that, it is like delicious candy in your glass. There is a tasty, sweeter sparkling wine from Italy called Moscato d’Asti that in recent years has been exported as an excellent quality wine that taste just like “summer in a glass,” with the alcohol content a sobering 5 percent or so.
Your wine label will also have to tell you where it came from. In Europe, where wine production has spanned centuries and even millennia, most regions have a short list of permitted grapes varieties. This also means that you don’t always see the name of the grape on the label in European wines—though, in a nod to the global marketplace, it is becoming more common. But you won’t find a pinot noir from Bordeaux, and you won’t find a gamay in Chianti Classico.
It can be a bit daunting at first, but tasting several different wines from a specific region can yield insight into what you should expect from a region, and allow you to celebrate the nuances of each producer or variations in vintage. If you follow your palate and are interested, then by all means research the wines you enjoyed and look for similar blends, similar regions, and stock up. Being able to sit down, relax, and enjoy a good bottle of wine with good friends is a great pleasure in life, and I hope you can try and enjoy some of these wines yourself.
Isole E Olena 2009, Chianti Classico, Italy
Always a hit on the table, this Chianti is clean, modern, tasty, and perfect with almost any Italian fare or meaty dishes. Good fruit, a little earthiness, spice, and some great balance. Price is around $30.
Dr. Loosen 2011, Dr. L Riesling, Mosel, Germany
A solid “best buy” Riesling, it’s a touch on the sweeter side (8.5% alcohol), but the sweetness is so well balanced by great acidity. Crisp apple fruit, a little lime, and mineral flavors round out a great Riesling at an everyday price too, $15-$20.
Michele Chiarlo 2011, Nivole Moscato D’ Asti, Italy
Effervescent, with bright, crisp tropical flavors and some sweetness, it’s a wine that doesn’t need to be discussed, but one that needs to be simply enjoyed. Serve well chilled, and it tastes best enjoyed on a deck or patio, about $12 for a 375 ml bottle.
Louis Jadot 2009, Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France
An excellent place to start delving into the wonderful wine world of Burgundy, the lean cherry fruits, a touch of earth and spice, and vegetable leaf aromas, this pinot whets the appetite for other great pinot noirs. Enjoy with duck, lamb, or homemade burgers, around $25.
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