How to read a wine label

Deciphering the message on the bottle
KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

The label on any U.S. wine seems straightforward compared to, say, a French wine. But looks can be deceiving, as they say. The words can mean much or little.

Major grape variety, region, and vintage: By United States law, a wine must be composed of at least 75 percent of the grape named, 85 percent of the grapes must come from the region named, and 95 percent of the wine must be from the vintage named (although states can choose to have stricter laws). These are good regulations. A wine that's 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from a single region may not be as delicious as a Cab that's blended with a little Merlot or wine grown somewhere else.

"Reserve," "special select," and the like have no legal meaning in the United States. In some cases, they denote a winery's best wine; in others, there is nothing special about it at all. Often, "reserve" is code for saying the wine was made using more oak, which invariably means it's more expensive ― but not necessarily better.

"Unfiltered" indicates that the particles weren't strained out; they're settling naturally. The word seems to imply the wine is somehow better, but filtration has no correlation with quality.

Back label: This is the winery's chance to capture your interest. But can all those wines be "rich," "supple," and "soft"? Sadly, in my experience, beyond a general indication of style ― "crisp and dry," for instance ― back labels are far more about buzzwords than they are about accurate descriptions. There's just no substitute for tasting the wines.

Sunset's Wine Club