Idaho Statesman - IdahoStatesman.com
Wine Advice by Garry Scholz
During the past holiday season, I came across one of the most amazing things I've ever seen in regard to a wine bottle: The front label contained no information.
The label in question was on a bottle of wine from a Midwestern winery. The only information besides alcohol content on the label was the winery's name. That's all. There's no appellation listed (geographic area of origin), no grape varietal, and no vintage (year it was made).
The lack of information actually spoke volumes to me and I quickly deduced several key facts about the wine. In the world of wine, information on a label, or lack thereof, can tell you a lot about what's inside the bottle.
Wine advice: Label says a lot about what's in a wine bottle
Labels can give you a wealth of information about a wine, and even serve as a guide to quality.
An appellation is a distinct geographic area where grapes are grown. Often, but not always, this is a legal designation. For instance, Napa Valley is a legally recognized appellation. Grapes grown in Oregon and made into wine cannot be called Napa Valley wine.
The same is true for much of the world. Many wine-producing countries legally control the use of geographic names when it comes to wine and grapes. The term Bordeaux on a wine bottle means that the wine was made from grapes grown within the legally defined area of Bordeaux, France.
A winery's use of an appellation assures the purchaser he or she is buying a wine from a distinct region.
Take a look at the Frogmore Creek label. Notice that it has the term Tasmania on it. This means the wine was made from grapes grown in Tasmania, Australia.
Since I bought the bottle from a winery in Tasmania's Coal River Valley appellation, I knew the grapes were not exclusively from that area. Why? Because the label also would have said Coal River Valley on it if the grapes had been grown only there. The grapes came from vineyards in both the Coal River Valley and another area of Tasmania, so the winery could not legally sell the wine as being strictly Coal River Valley wine.
Now, take a look at the 3 Horse Ranch wine label. Not only does it list the Snake River Valley as the appellation, it also says "estate grown." This means the wine was made entirely from grapes grown on the winery's property, often an indication of higher quality.
The lack of an appellation on a bottle of wine generally means the wine was made from lower-quality, leftover grapes from vineyards not recognized for producing high quality grapes.
I avoid buying wine that does not state a specific appellation on the bottle.
Both the Frogmore Creek and the 3 Horse Ranch bottles state a varietal (Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, respectively), meaning that each wine was made mostly from those grapes.
By contrast, the lack of a varietal on a label could be a tip-off that the wine was made from a blend. Wineries usually include that fact on their labels because blends are commonly used and can make outstanding wines.
If there is no varietal listed on a bottle, nor any mention of a blend, then I avoid buying that wine. It is most likely an inferior wine made from grapes that aren't suitable for fine table wine (as was the case with the Midwestern bottle I mentioned earlier).
The Frogmore Creek and the 3 Horse Ranch bottles both contain vintages. This tells us that the wine was made from grapes harvested in those years. This is a legal requirement. A winery cannot harvest grapes in 2006, make wine from them, and call the wine a 2001 vintage.
The lack of a vintage on a bottle means the wine was made from blending batches from different years. This is usually a sign of lower or inferior quality.
I recommend avoiding nonvintage wines unless you're buying real Champagne or Port, which can be exceptions to the rule.
You'll sometimes see a vineyard name on a label, which means the grapes came exclusively from that particular vineyard.
The use of a single vineyard to make a wine is the exception in the world of winemaking because the vast majority of wine around the world is made from blending grapes from multiple vineyards, either to keep costs down or to create a unique style.
The use of a single vineyard on the label often means the wine is of superior quality and will cost more. Some growers go to a lot of extra work tending their vines to produce only the most outstanding grapes, and they charge accordingly.
Wineries that make wines from such vineyards sell it as a premium product.
USE LABELS AS YOUR GUIDE TO QUALITY
You always should buy your wine by the label, but not by how it looks. Much as wineries would like for you to buy their wine by the artwork they use, my advice is to read the label instead.
For any varietal and vintage, look first for the appellation and then look for sub-appellations. Generally speaking, the more precisely a winery identifies the origin of the grapes, the higher the quality of the wine. This is true for any given varietal and vintage.
If a label simply has "California" with no further appellation stated, then the wine was made from surplus grapes obtained anywhere in the state.
The term "Sonoma," however, defines an appellation within California and denotes higher quality wine made from grapes harvested within Sonoma County.
You would expect to pay more for these wines.
The Russian River Valley is a sub-appellation of Sonoma with specific climate and weather conditions. Vineyards there are carefully tended to produce wine of superior quality.
If the label then states an individual vineyard, you could well have a truly exceptional wine. (Example: Pinot Noir from Amy's Vineyard of the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County of the state of California.)
As you get into the habit of reading wine labels, you'll become better educated about the appellations and sub-appellations of the world. Over time, you'll become better informed about wine and will develop a more discerning palate.
Three Horse Ranch Vineyards north of Eagle has recently released three new vintages: 2008 Pinot Gris, 2008 Viognier, and 2005 Reserve Syrah.
I've tried all of them, and they're all excellent.
Owners Gary and Martha Cunningham have received organic certification for the grapes used in this year's vintage, making them, to the best of my knowledge, only the second vineyard in Idaho to achieve this distinction.
Garry Scholz: email@example.com