If you like wine, you'd expect a trip to a wine shop to be like one of those Willy Wonka moments, but it can quickly deteriorate into that nightmarish instant when you flip your French A Level exam paper over and realise you can't even read the questions let alone write the answers (not that I'm scarred or anything). You leave needing a glass of wine more than ever before.
Labels aren't very forgiving. Depending on the country, different words can mean the same thing, and just to confuse you sometimes the same word can mean different things. It's like they're doing it deliberately.
New World wines look much friendlier as they generally just list the brand name, the grape and maybe a region, but even they can mess with your head when it comes to grape varieties: Shiraz is also known as Syrah, Zinfandel as Primitivo, Pinot Gris as Pinot Grigio, Grenache as Garnacha etc.
Obviously, there are thousands of label terms, but I've compiled a handy list of some of the more common ones to arm you with some know-how when faced with a room full of scary-looking bottles.
Key: Spain (S) France (F) Italy (I) Germany (G) Champagne/Sparkling (C)
Some wine is aged in oak barrels, giving it certain characteristics (more on that next week). If a wine has Reserva (S) or Riserva (I) on the label, it means it has fulfilled legal ageing periods - this means it's probably been aged for longer, and will be of higher quality. Spanish reds may also have 'Crianza' on the label to mark a shorter period of ageing, or 'Gran Reserva' for particularly long ageing.
For example, Tesco Finest's Rioja (£7.19) is a Reserva, so it's been aged for at least three years, (at least one year in oak) and will be smoother and more complex than a crianza.
You should bear in mind that if the word Reserva is used on New World wines, it may well have still spent time in oak but it has no legal bearing and so that's not guaranteed.
If a wine is dry, the label may say: Sec (F), Seco (S) Secco (I), Trocken(G) or Brut (C)
Medium-sweet wines may say: Demi-sec (C/F), Moelleux (F), Halbtrocken (G), Amabile (I), Semi-Seco (S)
If sweet, it may say: Doux (F), Dulce (S), Dolce (I), Suss (G), Rich (C)
This isn't an exhaustible list of terms denoting sweetness, and not all wines will be marked with their sweetness level, but it gives you the main ones to keep your eyes peeled for.
A good example: It can be hard to tell whether a Riesling will be sweet or not, but excellent producer Prinz Von Hessen makes this cracking Riesling Trocken, and you can grab a bottle from Majestic for £9.99.
Often the best wines come from the oldest vineyards, as older vines give less grapes but with more concentrated character.You may see Classico (I) or Vieilles Vignes (F - not a legal term) on a wine to suggest that.
For example, this 'vieilles vignes' Bourgogne Rouge by Nicolas Potel from Berry Bros is £17.95 a bottle. I love this producer and the old vines help make this is an exquisite mouth-filling Burgundy with great concentration of flavour.
If a Champagne (not any other sparkling wine) has a vintage, it's probably very fine indeed, with a pricetag to match. You don't have to spend that much though: most Champagne is non-vintage to keep the style consistent.
Cremant is used to describe a sparkling wine with a little less than full sparkling pressure.
Petillant (F) and Frizzante (I) mean lightly sparkling.
A good example: The Wine Society sell this Prosecco Frizzante for £8.95. As well as being the best Prosecco I've ever had, it's also got a pretty suave-looking bottle. Delicious.
Every country has different wine laws and ways of regulating what producers can put on their labels. Very loosely, they are:
Table wine: No vintage or grape varieties allowed. Pretty simple stuff.
Vin de Table (F), Deutscher Tafelwein (G), Vino da Tavola (I), Vino de Mesa (S)
Table wine with geographical description: Vintages and grapes are allowed on the label, as well as a particular region. They have to abide by the wine laws of that region, so quality tends to improve.
Vin de Pays (F) Landwein (G) IGT or Indicazione Geographica Typica (I) Vino de la Tierra (S)
Quality Wine from a Specific Region: Wines that are regulated more stringently so they are allowed to list a certain region on the label. They tend to be better-made and have more character but they vary pretty wildly in price (as you can see from the examples below). They're everywhere but we often don't notice the label telling us how good our wine is because we ignore the terms and acronyms we don't understand. But look out for the following on the label, and you'll know you've got a well-made wine:
- AOC - Appellation d'Origine Controlee / AC - Appellation Controlee (F) - The Burgundy I mentioned is from Bourgogne Rouge AC
- Qba or even better Pradikatswein (G) - the Riesling I mentioned is Pradikatswein
- DOC, or even better DOCG (I) - the Prosecco I featured is DOC
- DO or even better DOC/DOCa (S) - the Rioja I mentioned is a DOCa
Premium Classified: The word 'cru' means 'growth' in French, and a 'Premier Cru' or 'Grand Cru' wine will be some of the finest wine that region produces. They'll also be some of the priciest, so don't worry about this unless you're looking for something special.
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Image taken from David Marcel's photostream under the creative commons license.