Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.
Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.
The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.
In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.
White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.
It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.
If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.
Classic examples of Old World and New World wine labels / Left photo: Meg Baggott; Right photo: Sara Littlejohn
Have you ever looked at a bottle of Chianti, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Taurasi or Alentejo and wondered exactly what’s inside? Or how about when you come across a Rhône-style red blend from California? Wine labels can offer up a lot of information about what’s inside—that is if you can decode the cryptic language on the label.
But fear not. There are some basic formulas that can help you understand the rather confusing and sometimes smug words on wine labels.
How to Read a Wine Label
The first thing to determine is if the wine is from the Old World (Europe, the Mediterranean, parts of Western Asia) or New World (any other wine-producing region). While all labels will include basic facts like region, producer, alcohol by volume (abv) and vintage (unless nonvintage), there are some notable distinctions.
Here are the differences between what you may find on labels from these two categories.
Old World Wine Labels
The vast majority of Old World wines will typically only indicate regions and aging classifications on the front label, but not grape varieties.
For example, red Riojas are produced typically from Tempranillo grapes, possibly with Graciano,Garnacha and perhaps Mazuelo. (And how could anyone not know that Mazuelo is the name for Carignan in Rioja). The problem is you’d be hard-pressed to find a Rioja that lists any of these grapes on the front label, if at all. The same goes for Chianti (made from Sangiovese), Burgundy (Pinot Noir for red wines and Chardonnay for white), Bordeaux and many others.
The main reason for these labeling practices is that these wines are more about a regional style than the grapes themselves. The same grape can show different characteristics based on climate, soil and terroir. So, while it may seem like producers are trying to confuse you by not naming the grapes on their bottles, it’s actually quite the opposite.
In recent years, some Old World producers have begun to name their wine’s grapes on the back labels, or even occasionally on the front. The caveat is that you’re expected to know what grapes can be (and are allowed to be) used in specific regions. That’s where a hint of Old World presumption can kick in.
Another characteristic of an Old World label is it may offer guidelines to aging. Unlike many New World wine labels, terms like “Reserva” (or “Riserva” in Italy) and “Gran Reserva” have real meaning based on the region they’re from.
However, each region’s regulations for age classifications can have almost identical names, but be very different. For example, if a bottle of red Rioja has Reserva on the label, that means it has been aged for a minimum of 36 months, with at least 12 months in oak.
However, a bottle of Chianti with Riserva on the label has spent at least 24 months in oak, with another three months in bottle. Additionally, a Brunello di Montalcino with Riserva on the label has spent five years aging after harvest, with at least two of those years spent in oak and six months in bottle. This is compared to the standard four total years (two in oak and four months in bottle) for non-Riserva Brunello.
The most confusing wine labels of them all might be German, which contain a multitude of technical information and German-language terms like “Trockenbeerenauslese,” “Bernkasteler Badstube” and “Grosses Gewächs.” One glance and you may feel you need to be a Mensa member to ever understand these descriptions.
Here are a few tricks to help you decode German labels:
German Wine Quick Tips
German labels include ripeness levels.
For Prädikatswein, a designation that denotes superior quality wines, the levels range from the least ripe (Kabinett) to the ripest (Trockenbeerenauslese) and everything in between (Spätlese, Auslese and Beerenauslese). The ripeness levels can help indicate the sweetness level of the final wine. There may also be specific sweetness levels noted on German wine labels, which include Trocken (dry), Halbtrocken (half-dry/off-dry) and Eiswein (sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes). You may also see Feinherb stated (another term to represent off-dry wines). And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
When you see two names together, particularly if the first name ends with an ‘er,’ it denotes a subregion and vineyard.
So, Bernkasteler Badstube means the wine is from the Badstube vineyard, located within the Bernkastel subregion.
German wines have their own version of Crus, like Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Grosses Gewächs on a label refers to a “great growth” and a wine of the highest quality, where Grosse Lage and Erstes Lage refer to grand cru and premier cru, respectively.
New World Wine Labels
With wines from the U.S., South America, Oceania and most other non-European countries, the grape variety almost always appears on the label.
Originally, New World wine labels focused less on where the grapes were grown because they were basically all unknown wine regions. Rather, they highlighted grapes to link the wines to iconic European regions. A Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot could be associated with Bordeaux, while a Chardonnay could be compared to Burgundy.
This also occurred because, unlike their Old World counterparts, the style of the wine focused more on the grape’s expression than the region, though this has certainly changed over time. Now, many non-European regions are home to some of the finest vineyards in the world.
New World wine labels tend to be fairly straightforward. More often than not, they provide the grapes, region, subregion and even a description of the wine’s aromas and flavors, usually on the back.
However, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Take one of the most popular wines in the U.S. right now, The Prisoner. That name is literally all you’ll find on the front label, while the back label states simply that it’s a “red wine” from Napa Valley. These wines, like some Old World counterparts, count on the prestige of their name communicating all a wine connoisseur needs to know.
Certain New World wines may also be deemed a Rhône-style red blend or a super Tuscan-style wine. Again, you have to know the grapes used in the historic European regions to understand what’s in the bottle. Typically, Rhône-style red blends from California are a combination of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre other grapes permitted in France’s Rhône Valley.
Keep in mind that with New World labels, terms like “Reserve,” “Special” and “Selection” don’t have any regulatory minimums in terms of aging or vineyard location. They are basically marketing terms meant to imply a higher-quality bottling, but they can be slapped on any label and offer no guarantee.
The only term that really has legal meaning in the U.S. is “Meritage,” the combination of “merit” and “heritage.” A number of California winemakers banded together in the late 1980s to form the Meritage Association (now Meritage Alliance) and created this classification for Bordeaux-style blends produced by member wineries, intended as a designation of quality. These wines must be a blend of two or more of the red Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot and the rarer St. Macaire, Gros Verdot and Carmenère. They can’t have more than 90% of any single variety. For white Meritage, the blend must include at least two of the three Bordeaux white grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle.
There’s a lot to learn from wine labels—so long as you know where to look. Keep these tricks in mind and you’ll be headed in the right direction.
There are just as many wine glasses shapes out there as there are wines. Here are some hints on how to select the right glass to enhance your pour.
Over the last decade or so, an abundance of wine glass shapes have hit the scene that range from basic and inexpensive to elaborate and exorbitant. While there are still variety-specific options for stemware (Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux, Pinot Noir/Burgundy, Chardonnay, etc.), universal glasses seek to become the perfect choice for every wine style.
Whether your wine is red, white, rosé, sparkling or fortified, aromas play a pivotal role in its overall character. The smaller the bowl, the harder it is for all of those aromas to escape. Larger bowls allow for more oxygen to come in contact with the wine. They also lend themselves towards an easier swirl, which not only looks cool, when executed properly, will aerate the wine and help it open up.
Variety Specific vs. Simple Red or White
Over the last century, glasses have been designed for just about every major grape variety. Each wine style has specific characters in terms of acidity, fruit expression, tannin and alcohol, and the different glass shapes intensify or mellow those attributes. If your goal is to build a stellar collection, this is a fun route to travel. However, you can stick with a standard Cabernet, or red, wine glass for all red wines, and a Chardonnay glass for white wines, and not lose out on the intricacies of the wine. If you seek variety-specific glasses, here’s the nitty gritty for those stems.
Your traditional red wine glass. Cabs and Bordeaux tend to be high in alcohol and tannin. A larger bowl with more height creates more distance between the wine and the drinker, causing ethanol to dissipate on the nose and allowing more oxygen to encourage tannins to soften.
Slightly taller than the Cab glass and with a slight taper at the top, this glass is designed to focus the fruit and allow plenty of aeration to mellow tannins in these massive red wines.
The extremely wide bowl and tapered rim allows plenty of aeration, concentrates delicate aromas and showcases the bright, rich fruit.
Your traditional white wine glass. It’s meant for young, fresh wines, as the slightly narrow rim concentrates the nose of highly aromatic white wines. The smaller bowl size also keeps white wine colder than the large bowls used for reds.
Similar in shape to the Pinot Noir glass just smaller in scale, the wide bowl and narrow rim concentrates aromas and achieves maximum aeration on creamy white wines to reveal subtle complexities and offset rich fruit concentration. This glass is often confused with the Chardonnay glass.
The Champagne flute is all about the bubbles. It keeps the fruit and potential yeasty aromas focused with its narrow design, but also allows the effervescence to remain fresh and flow longer.
These wines are higher in alcohol than still bottlings. A smaller bowl reduces alcohol evaporation and highlights their rich fruit and complex aromas.
Stemless vs. Stems
While stemless glasses can be excellent options for everyday enjoyment, they may not be the best option for sipping higher-quality wines. They force users to grasp its bowl, rather than a stem or base, causing the wine’s temperature to rise due to heat from the hand. It’s not a huge disaster for reds, but can be for white wines. Fingerprints and smudge marks are also inevitable with stemless glassware.
Thin is In
The latest trend in stemware is a super-light, thin stem and lip of the glass. These elegant collections, like Zalto and Zenology, can feel like you’re barely holding a glass at all. Tasting rooms and top wine restaurants offer their finest wines in this style of glassware. However, they are as delicate as they are refined. If broken wine glasses are an epidemic in your home, you may need something a little more substantial, like Riedel or Fusion.
Ditch the Flute
Sparkling wine, particularly Prosecco, is now consumed more than ever. But wine lovers enjoy the aromas that pop out of the glass, which can be muted with the traditional, narrow Champagne flute. Though to toast with a flute is always popular, a white wine or universal glass is often the better option. If you search for a happy middle ground, a coupe or tulip-shaped Champagne glass allows bubbles to flow a bit longer than the typical wine glass, which enable more of the intense aromas to shine.
One Glass For All
If you don’t want to choose which glass goes with which wine, then the universal glass is the way to go. Sized somewhere in between a Chardonnay and a smaller red glass, it’s the most versatile option to enjoy all of your favorite wines, including sparkling! Growing in popularity, just about every glass collection offers a universal option.
Published on October 30, 2018
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III
From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.