Do you read the back label on a wine bottle, either before you buy it or while you’re drinking its contents?
It may or may not contain a wealth of information aside from the ubiquitous government warnings. There’s often marketing hype, of course, a sentence or two about the winemaker’s passion and attachment to the land. Yawn. You may also find chemical analysis, such as the pH balance and acidity levels of the wine, the sugar levels at harvest (Brix, measured in degrees) or in the finished wine (residual sugar, or RS, in grams per liter), data of interest only to the nerdiest of wine geeks. A foreign wine will tell you the name of the importer (important as a guide to quality) and the alcohol level of the wine on the back label. (Domestic wines tend to put the alcohol level on the front, in the tiniest type known to mankind.)
The back label will also tell you a little bit about the producer and how the wine was made, though this information is not always clear or complete. The key words to look for are “bottled by,” required on all wines sold in the United States. But there are variations such as “produced and bottled by.” Some wines are “cellared,” while others are “vinted.” What do these descriptions mean?
If you are a casual wine drinker interested in a tasty tipple at a reasonable price, the distinctions may be insignificant. Some wine collectors, however, view these statements as an indication of the wine’s authenticity.
“Pulling back the curtain on this is an interesting topic,” says Michael Kaiser, vice president of WineAmerica, an industry trade group based in Washington. “A lot of consumers have a distorted view of how wine is made. They picture a tasting room with vineyards out the window where the grapes are grown to make the wine in the production facility right there on the property.”
Federal labeling regulations don’t exactly spell out the distinctions clearly, so Kaiser helped me with an explanation.
“Grown, produced and bottled by”: The winery actually grew the grapes, on vineyards it either owns or leases with control over the farming. This is the most restrictive labeling, for a wine that most resembles that idealized view we have of the artisan vigneron toiling in her vineyards.
“Estate grown”: The winery and its vineyards are within an established American Viticultural Area, or AVA. (This is often used in addition to “grown, produced and bottled by.”)
“Produced and bottled by”: At least 75 percent of the grapes used were fermented in the winery’s facility. That means some purchased wine can be blended in. More likely, it indicates that the winery purchased grapes from established growers and made the wine itself. Wines that are altered, as in fortified or carbonated, may also be labeled as “produced.”
“Vinted” or “cellared”: Murkier labels, these indicate essentially finished wines purchased in bulk and then given some sort of cellar treatment before bottling. This treatment can be blending two or more wines, adding sugar or water, filtering, pasteurization, adding flavorings or something as simple as refrigeration. Say, for instance, a winery purchases finished zinfandel on the bulk market from Paso Robles, and blends it with another zin from Sonoma or the Central Valley and labels the result as a California zinfandel. This wine could be labeled as “vinted.”
And that’s where market misperceptions factor in. “Vinted could be perceived as implying the wine was made entirely by the bottling winery, when that is not the case at all,” Kaiser says. He says he has seen wineries use “vinted” as a synonym for “produced” when they could have used the more precise designation.
Does all this matter if the wine tastes good? Probably not, to most people. But in a time when we are increasingly aware of where our food is grown and where our beer is brewed, when farmers and vignerons are rock stars, and we are willing to seek out and pay a little more for authenticity and quality, these distinctions are worth noting.
And some people do care. “The number one question we get in our tasting room is, ‘Is this estate fruit?’ or ‘Is this really your wine?'” says Katie DeSouza, assistant winemaker at Casanel Vineyards in Leesburg, Va.
DeSouza may have pulled back the curtain on another question worthy of discussion — the provenance of local wine. But her point remains: If you are looking for wines that express the craft of the winemaker, from tending the vines to bottling the wines, read the back label.