When a standard 750-ml/75-cl bottle of wine looms before you in a wine shop, a supermarket or on a restaurant table, a story is about to unfold. The bottle shape usually provides at least a clue to the producing region and the labels should be able to fill in all the basic data and sometimes more. In a previous column I explained bottle types in some detail. Our focus today is wine bottle labels: the neck label, the front label and the back label. Of these, the front label always appears and the others may or may not. If you have a wine bottle handy, it may help to keep it before you as you read this.
Below the bottle’s capsule or foil is an air space (the ullage) separating the cork from the wine, and below the ullage you may find the neck label, usually revealing the maker’s name and perhaps the estate or vintage. Rarely is it important.
Now the plot thickens. Herewith I present — the front label! It should be, and usually is, the wine’s ID card, providing all essential data.
Front labels vary by region and producer in the way they present information, sometimes because of legal requirements. They usually indicate the producing estate and its address, the type of wine, its origin, official quality classification, vintage and style (dry, semi-dry, etc.). Other data may include the name and address of the negociant (a type of wine trader) and the type of grape(s) used.
In California and most other parts of the world the front label typically gives the main grape (varietal) used, and a distributor’s name may appear instead of the negociant’s, a common label entry in France, where, conversely, the varietal might not appear on the label. If this seems confusing, relax. You needn’t get it all in one gulp. Just concentrate on what you see, and what it means, as if you were reading a road map.
The back label of wine bottles can be interesting and useful. America’s prose-form back labels were once mostly puffery, but now describe the harvest, the grapes and the food-matching possibilities of the wine, often with a promotional plug as well.
Back labels on bottles of wine produced in France, Germany and Spain satisfy my ideal: succinct, systematic, informative and free of hype. They briefly give the wine style, serving temperatures, food-and-wine matching suggestions, and often the varietal(s). Back labels in Japan now tend to do likewise.
Perhaps this can help offset Japanese television’s bias toward sommelier dotings on costly vintages and dishes and the often boneheaded comments by celebrity “gourmets” with no qualifications to judge wine and food. On TV last year a “gourmet” slurping through a wedge of watermelon condemned it as mizuppoi (watery) and some others couldn’t distinguish between wines as much as 30,000 yen apart in price. Really, does anyone need this? And who really cares which wines former baseball pitcher X likes, or novelist Y or actor Z?
Japan will signal its maturity as a wine market when it can start presenting wine on its merits alone. For all the wine hype, Japan remains backward in wine sophistication. Purchasing power can’t make you an expert, but systematic study can help, so let’s press on.
Don’t be taken in by impressive label art. Some of it is admirably discreet and dignified, and some is arrestingly clever. Assume, though, that a great front-label design — snappy, ingenious, original or avant-garde — tells you nothing about what counts: the wine inside. Ghastly label designs turn me off: Art should be in good taste, and some miserably bad label designs do appear on equally bad wines. But smell and taste are what tell. Caveat emptor!
I’ve been enjoying goat cheese, a great French and Belgian favorite, with some explosively fruity chenin blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa: truly wonderful stuff. Some prefer to enjoy chevre with a young light-bodied red. Any food from a goat is good for you — and goat cheese is fantastic. With warmer weather coming, consider lunching on wine with cheese, flavorful sausage, baguettes and a light salad, and with the sausage try some sturdy reds such a full-bodied Bordeaux, Cahors, Cote d’Or or a Montepulciano de Abruzzo.
I’ll soon be discussing airline wines. Cheers!