*For the purposes of this lesson, all examples will be drawn from the label above*
Ok, some people are often time confused by how to actually read a wine lable. At a glance it is a wealth of information. While there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule, there is a general way that wine labels are made; these days nearly the same, so that on an international level no matter what bottle you are looking at you can get a very good idea of the type and even quality of wine you are holding. Again, not every lable is the same, but they often times hold the same information; though from label to label it may be in a different location.
This is a year. It is often the large number big, bold and burly on the label. It is either in the four digit format (1997) or in the two digit format for newer wineries ('97). Vintages are expressed in many different ways, and it is important to know that the vintage is when the mine was actually BOTTLED. It should also be noted that proper wine etiquette states that you refer to the vintage FIRST in normal parlance, but in a professional or ceremonial setting you refer it last. Ergo, with friends you can say: "Its a '97 Zinfandel." Where as in the matter of a tasting presentation, you might say: "May I present the Nalle Vineyards Zinfandel, year 1997, for your tasting pleasure...". Vintage is very important, for even the most basic 'wino' it tells the wine's story.
The varietal is the grape (or blend) the wine is made from. Chardonnays are made from Chardonnay grapes, Merlots are made from Merlot grapes, Bordeauxs are a fifty-fifty blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The varietals are almost always (like 99% of the time) found directly in the middle of the label. It is often situated under the vineyard and above the vintage (though sometimes the vintage is found above the vineyard name which makes the varietal the lower of the three). The vintage combined with varietal, technically, is all the info you need as far as type of wine and feel is concerned. The vintage and the varietal are ofent times all the reference a wine might get, like: "Its a '97 Zinfandel".
The pride of any label, the reason, actually, for the label in the first place. This is where the dash of uniqueness comes in. Each Vineyard is its own business and therefore has its own label and its own flare as to how it presents itself to the public. Vineyards and owners understand that this is their first impression and that loyalty is solidified in the quality of their wine. So if its qulity you are probing, and not just general information about the wine at hand, you ask about the vineyard. As such, the vineyard is also prominent information both on the lable and in discussion (plain and ceremonious). If the presenter of the wine really likes the quality that said vineyard produces, you can always tell by the excitement in their voice as they mention it. "This is the delicious Nalle Vineyards Zinfandel, year 1997!" The vineyard can be found either IN the logo or prominently on the label, usually the most prominent thing on the label.
This is huge! This will tell you the most of all the singular information on the label. By knowing the location you'll know the region where the wine was made and thus the quality of the grape the wine was made with. When checked against the quality of the vineyard (then the vintage - based on the varietal) you'll nearly immediately know the value and sentiment of the wine you are holding. The location is that of the parent vineyard, and is found usually at the bottom of the label, or more often under the vineyard name. One could be colloquial and include the location in their presentation when hosting a wine tasting to wax elloquence. "Here we have the Nalle Vineyards Zinfandel, year 1997, out of Sonoma County in California." This is mostly, however, for show. Though, that is not to say your guests won't ask if you do not mention it - so be ready.
Warnings (America Only):
Here in the United States, federal laws require that certain warning information and content information be posted (like zits) on an otherwise perfect label. France doesn't have to put up with this crap! As such somewhere on the label, often in the smalles font allowed by law - YES! There is a law governing that too! - you'll find the alcohol content, in America rarely more than 15.5% and the warning of the Surgeon General about how it can lead to liver disease and that pregnant women shouldn't take any alcohol at all. These are, however, just warnings.
At times labels will have a back side as well, on the opposite side of the bottle, that will offer more business information about the winery from which the winery came and sometimes even offer a recipe or maybe a pairing solution along with a very brief description of the wine. This is not common, however, since some of the allure of wine is the mystery that it holds - especially for the beginning or novice 'wino'.
Either way you slice it, you can rest assured that most - if not all - of this information can be found on a single wine label and now you know how to read it. Personal testimony: The most amazing wine label I have ever had the privilage of actually laying hands and eyes on was:
"Rue the Chantelle Vineyards, Merlot, year 1776 from Bordeaux, France."
That bottle of wine, that I held in my hand in the summer of 2002 was still sealed and stored properly. It came to this, then new, country in 1776 with the French Fleet that saved the Continental Regulars at Yorktown and forced the British Supreme Commander, General Edward James Cornwallis to surrender the Crown's position in the 'New World'. It was incredible!