How to read a wine bottle label

Wine labels – some can be gorgeous and eye-catching, and sometimes they’re the whole reason we buy a wine! But apart from looking nice, what can a label tell us about a wine? How can we understand more about what’s in the bottle by looking at what’s written on it?

Compared to a lot of Europe, we’re not bound by many legalities when it comes to our wine labels in Australia. Here, wine labels are governed by the Wine Australia Act 2013 and accompanying Regulations, the Food Standards Code, the National Measurement Act, and the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

Below is a summary of what must be on a bottle and what is optional.

Mandatory:

Volume Lettering must be 3.3mm in height and can be on the back or front of the label.
Designation Must convey the true nature of the food, for example the word ‘wine’ as in ‘Wine of Australia’.
Country of Origin The wording here is not defined, so you could have ‘Wine of Australia’ or ‘Product of Australia’.
Alcohol Content Wording isn’t defined and tolerance varies between products.
Allergens Sulphites in concentrations above 10ppmm and processing aids such as milk & egg must be declared.
Name & Address This denotes the responsible entity and cannot be a postal address.
Lot Number Batch number from the winery.
Standard Drinks Wording or a logo is acceptable, but the number of drinks in the bottle must be declared in some way.

Optional:

Vintage This is the harvest year, and 85% of the grapes must be from that year.
Region (GI) 85% of the grapes must have come from a region for it to be on the label.
Variety These claims are optional, but the wine must be made up of 85% of the grape claimed. You can say there are multiple varieties in one wine, but they must be listed in descending order.
Brand name These names should not mislead as to the origin, age or identity of a wine.

Some key things to keep in mind when you’re trying to decipher a label are the vintage and the varietal information.

The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested, not when they were bottled. This will help you understand how old a wine is, and perhaps give you an idea of some of the flavours to expect in a bottle. For example, a young Riesling (say a 2019) will have more acidity and vibrant fruit flavours of citrus, whereas an older Riesling (say a 2013) might have more pronounced petrol and warm honeyed flavours, due to the ageing.

In Australia, we mention the grape varietals on the bottle as opposed to the geographic region (like they do in France). This is mostly because we aren’t bound by strict labelling and appellation laws like they are over there. For example, we would say Sauvignon Blanc on our labels, but the French would put Sancerre. Here, when a varietal is on the label, you know that what’s in the bottle has to be made up of 85% of that grape.

It’s also worth noting the back labels. You can find some great information here, usually from the winemaker or producer themselves. This section might include some tasting notes to help you understand the style in which the wine was made, or perhaps some interesting info or a story about the wine, its name or the estate.

Usually, here is where you’ll find mandatory and important information like the standard number of drinks in the bottle and anything that might have been included in the winemaking process that could be considered an allergen. This info is good for keeping track of how many drinks you’re consuming and for alerting you to something in the wine that you might be allergic to.

We really hope this information helps you next time you’re trying to decipher a wine label! Now you can read what’s on the bottle, and choose a wine, with confidence.