Wine Labels Are Confusing—We Asked an Expert to Clear Things Up
In the case of wine, you often have no choice but to judge a book by its cover. To make an informed decision, start by learning what all those terms on the bottle mean.
Loving wine and understanding it are not mutually exclusive. And that’s okay! You can spend your entire life sipping from bottles of bubbly or Pinot and never truly know what the terms on the label—like 'Contains Sulfites' or 'Biodynamic'—mean. But we’re strong proponents of the idea that information is power, and who doesn’t love learning about vino? We tapped Christopher Hoel, Founder of Harper’s Club and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders for all his expert knowledge on wine label terminology. Read on to cut through your confusion. Then toast your new knowledge with a bottle of rosé or orange wine.
ABV is the amount of alcohol in your wine, expressed as a percentage by volume. The higher the percentage, the stronger the wine. A bottle’s ABV is also a great way to gauge whether the wine is sweet or dry. Wines with a 12.5% or higher are typically dry, while those south of 12.5% have more residual sugar and are typically sweeter. So, a wine with 13% ABV is likely to be dry, while one with 10.5% has sweetness to it.
Sulfites are naturally occurring in wine because they are in the grape skins, and often sulfite dioxide (SO2) is used as a preservative during the bottling process. Some believe that sulfites cause headaches, but this is pure speculation. There are actually more sulfites in dried fruits than in a glass of wine. Those headaches are most likely due to the alcohol itself, specifically the amount consumed.
On wine labels you’ll see a line noting a geographic area — it can be a country, state, region, town, or even a specific vineyard. This is called an “appellation” and it legally certifies where the grapes were grown. The rules for appellation vary country by country. For example, in the U.S. the American Viticulture Area (AVA) system determines appellation purely by geography. In France, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system has highly specific, centralized rules and requirements throughout production in order to receive an appellation. For the everyday wine drinker, appellation most directly impacts price. The more specific an appellation — such as “Rutherford, California” or “Napa Valley” versus “California” — the more the wine is likely to cost.
Organic wines are those made with organically-grown grapes, without the use of chemicals. The decision to choose an organic wine really comes down to personal philosophy. According to Jeff Cichocki, the Winemaker at Bonterra Organic Vineyards, gaining third-party certification for usage of the terms “Made with Organic Grapes,” “Certified Organic Farmers” and “Certified Biodynamic” on a wine label is key. “Ultimately, third-party certifications like these are the only way to be totally sure that what you’re getting is what’s promised. For instance, the Made with Organic Grapes and Made with Biodynamic Grapes indications guarantee that wines have lower sulfite levels than conventional wines, since lower sulfite levels are requirements for these certifications.” Because of their lower sulfite content, organic wines are likely a better choice for those with sensitivities to sulfite additions to wines.
“Made with Certified Organic Grapes also means the vineyards were tended with verifiably good-for-the-earth practices, which at Bonterra include applying plant-based compost, planting cover crops, facilitating habitats for beneficial insects and animals, allowing sheep to naturally mow the cover crop (which replaces the need for emissions-generating tractors for mowing), and never using harmful synthetic pesticides or herbicides,” adds Cichocki.
Biodynamic wines are those made from grapes that have been biodynamically-harvested. Biodynamic farming is very similar to organic farming, but with very specific methods and preparations to foster soil health. Like organic wines, choosing a biodynamic wine really comes down to personal philosophy. Although, biodynamic wines may be more expensive.
Natural wine means that there are no chemicals used during production. Natural wine is still a new category, and there’s not much consistency in terms of taste. Keep in mind that just because a wine is natural does not mean it’s inherently better. Natural wines can have an oxidative “funkiness” to them that may not be palatable, but others are delicious. It’s simply hard to deduce anything from the natural label alone. One thing that is certain, however, is that natural wine has a shorter shelf life.
What's the difference between organic and natural wine?
The term 'Organic' is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the term 'Natural' is not. Generally speaking, natural wines are made without adding chemicals, sulfur, oak character, cultured yeasts, or additives—but there's no actual legal definition for 'natural.' Wineries that bottle certified organic wines, on the other hand, have been approved by the USDA for not using any sulfur dioxide (a preservative) in their growing and bottling process. Their vineyards are farmed using only organic practices: no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers.