When asked how I learned about wine, my truthful answer is, “By drinking it.” But that’s really only half the story.
I also read a lot (nowadays I call it research) because it quenches my curiosity. Reading answers these burning questions about which grapes are allowed when Chianti is on the label (Sangiovese with 15% other grapes), fortified wines (Port, Sherry, Madeira, Marsala) or which brut, extra dry and sweet on a label Champagne actually means.
The subjects are numerous and could fill volumes! How to pronounce the names of Greek grapes (Assyrtiko) or French for that matter (Veuve Cliquot) or what are the most obscure grape varieties that we find in Italy (Canaiolo, Colorino, Schioppettino, Fiano, Gaglioppo).
And then there is the terroir, its influence on the wines we like to drink. Riesling is a cool climate grape (Germany, Washington), Syrah or Shiraz can withstand heat (Rhône, Australia, parts of California and Washington).
Most of the time, labels reveal a lot of information about the contents of a bottle. This is also true for beer and cider. Regulators in a country have rules about what goes on the label, some more stringent than others. But producers are required by law to put certain information on the label.
My rule of thumb: the more real estate on a label, the better the quality. It can be applied all over the world.
Traditionally, Old World producers advertise the location and the vintage rather than the grape variety because everyone knows that in Burgundy the white is always made with Chardonnay and the red is always made with Pinot Noir. Always.
In the Old World, the place is particularly important and prominently displayed on the label. Their long history has proven that some vineyards are superior to others and are therefore listed on the label with the region and the producer. Louis Jadot Gevrey Chambertin Clos St Jacques.
Some regions of the Old World allow the grape variety on the label. These regions generally cultivate several grape varieties, so the names of the grapes are accompanied by a place name. Think of Italy (Barbera d’Asti, Moscato d’Asti), Germany (Graacher Himmelreich Riesling) and certain appellations from France (Marcel Deiss Gewurztraminer Altenberg).
And in the New World, the information required on the label identifies the grape and perhaps a general location, for example Cabernet Sauvignon, in Washington state. The real estate rule is less important in the New World but no less important because of the terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon, Ciel du Cheval, Red Mountain, Washington State.
Also, in the New World, when a grape name is on the label, a certain percentage of that variety must be in the bottle. This percentage is generally 75% but varies according to the rules of a region. No grape name on the label? It’s a mix.
Some New World labels offer the bare minimum. These wines are based on brand names or on marketing. Because they are a mixture of grapes, vintages and regions, these labels are bigger not because of a lot of information but because of the size of the bottle or box.
But all labels must mention the name of the producer, the origin of the grapes, the alcohol content, the importer if there is one and a vintage if it is not a blend of several vintages. different.
Wines without a vintage date are not always cheaper. Champagne, sherry and port are often a blend of several vintages. Bulk wines are generally blends of vintages and regions. White labels, where a retailer purchases finished wine in unlabeled bottles from producers and renames them with their own labels, may or may not have a vintage.
Private label wines are generally contracted with the winemaker as needed. The Kirkland brand would be a good example of a private label.
Some labels do not have the vintage label on the front but rather on the neck or back label. This saves on the cost of reprinting the labels each year. Easier to change the neck tag every year. And the back label of a blended wine would probably contain information for the current year.
You can learn a lot from labels, but books are essential too! One of my favorite books is the Oxford Companion to Wine edited by Jancis Robinson. It’s a great reference tool now in its fourth edition.
In the past, I am still learning, but in a different way. During the lockdown, many wineries and festivals took to the World Wide Web with webinars and virtual tastings with wineries, merchants, tasting rooms and winery managers.
And rereading Frank and Perie Kladstrup’s “Wine and War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure” is a fascinating tale to be read especially with a glass of champagne. It tells how the French wine industry survived the Nazi occupation. The Champagne region was particularly devastated during the conflict, but you will be encouraged by the spirit of innovation and the resilience of the people of this famous region.
My current reading is “Drunk, how we sipped, danced and stumbled on our way to civilization” by Edward Slingerland. It’s revealing, entertaining, and long overdue by the library. Slingerland draws on history, neuroscience, psychopharmacology, literature and more.
The passage on how humans and fruit flies are so drawn to fermented fruits will have you laughing out loud and reading excerpts to your family and friends.
Mary Earl has been educating Kitsap wine lovers for over 20 years, a long-time member of the West Sound Brew Club, and can accompany a dinner or wine dinner in a flash. She volunteers for the Clear Creek Trail, is a member of the Central Kitsap Community Council and a long-time supporter of Silverdale.
This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Reading – Books and Labels – Elevates the Pleasure of Drinking Wine