Read between the wines
Most European wine producers assume that everything you want to read about their wine is on the front label. While the limited information on these labels is not easy to decipher, non-European wineries often succumb to TMI (too much information) syndrome: slapping a label on the back of the bottle that details everything from pH levels to the winemaker's shoe size.
A good label should let you know what type of wine is in the bottle, where it comes from and when it was produced (the vintage). It is also helpful when the label offers pointers to a wine's quality. While price is often an indicator, there are other clues to follow.
Over the past 150 years, a number of ranking systems have evolved in Europe both to help consumers understand the quality of a wine and to provide identity protection for the producers. The trouble is, many of these label cues are more in the form of a 'code' that only connoisseurs can decipher. Worse still, these systems evolved in isolation from one another and so are inconsistent and idiosyncratic.
In most of Bordeaux, the highest-quality wine is classed as premier cru, a rank that is never printed on the label. You are simply expected to know it.
In Burgundy, we are helpfully told, knowing whether a wine is grand cru (highest) or premier cru (second-highest) is simply a matter of whether the village name is posted on the label above that of the vineyard. If you aren't interested in memorising the village names of Burgundy, just check the label to see whether there is one line of text demarking the place of origin, or two.
The rest of the world is trundling down a similarly pot-holed path, with increasingly specific or detailed vineyard designations on the front label accompanied by lengthy narratives on the back that overwhelm us with technical detail or baffle us with inane buzzwords. And then there are the seemingly impressive front- label terms that have no legal definition and are bound by no regulations, such as 'estate wine', 'reserve wine', 'grand vin', 'cuv?e prestige', 'proprietor's reserve' and 'reserve speciale'. 'Vieille vignes', or 'old vines', suggests the wine must be of high quality due to the vineyard's ancient vines. However, there is no acknowledged criterion for the term 'old vines'.
Oak references are also a slippery game. Oak barrels are expensive, so therefore, some producers like to draw attention to their 'barrel ageing' or maturation regimes, making such statements as 'aged in new French oak barrels for 18 months'. Mass-market winemakers shortcut the barrel expense by tossing oak chips or oak 'tea bags'
into their tanks. The labels on the back of these bottles will refer to oak aromas or flavours such as 'plummy red fruit with spicy oak notes' or 'rich vanilla oak flavours' without specifically mentioning anything about the barrels used in the process.
In Europe, most wines are labelled based on the place they are from rather than the grape variety, so it is helpful to take note of your favourite wine regions rather than your preferred grape varieties. You could always check a wine guide before you buy - but that requires more reading.
Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine.