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Judging Wine by its Label

More people choose wines by their labels than are comfortable admitting it. Novices reach for pretty pictures; snobs demand famous names. But in fact, a wine label reveals a great deal about the flavors in the bottle. You can begin your tasting even before you've pulled the cork.

Each kind of label gives different clues to the wine inside the bottle, but all labels include a few basics. For example, the producer's name is always prominent. Most wineries develop consistent signatures, based on their location, wine making skills and marketing goals; once you're familiar with a winery's profile, the producer's name is perhaps the most reliable indicator of wine style and quality. The wine's vintage is almost always shown, too. If you're familiar with the vintages of a given region, this can be a telling indicator -- red Bordeaux were mostly light and diluted in 1992, but rich and concentrated in 1990.

However, even if you don't know whether a specific vintage was good or bad, knowing how old a wine is indicates something about its current style: young, fresh and fruity, or older, smoother and more complex. Most whites, and very many reds, are best within three years of the vintage; wines that age well increase in price over time. Beware of old, inexpensive wines.

Most labels indicate the region where the grapes were grown and the wine made. On terroir-based labels, this is emphasized: The Burgundian appellations of Nuits-St.-Georges and Vosne-Romanée, for example, are more or less homogenous and distinctive vineyard areas that, at least in theory, impart recognizable character to their wines, especially since appellation laws generally regulate many aspects of grape growing and wine making.

Varietal-based labels also generally indicate appellations (though often in small type), sometimes right down to the name of the vineyard. But in these production areas regulation tends to be much looser, and so wines from the same appellation tend to have less in common. Fantasy labels often avoid any mention of origin at all (some-times the laws won't permit their indication). But since fantasy wines deliberately break with the traditions of their regions, origin doesn't mean that much, anyway.

Finally, don't forget the price tag, stuck right there next to the label. Yes, there may be wide disparities between a wine's cost and its quality. Wine Spectator takes pains to point these out, whether it's a great wine for little money or an overpriced bottle to avoid. But more often than not, there is a rough correlation.

If you're spending under $5 per bottle, the wine is likely to be simple, offering alcohol as its principal virtue. From $5 to $12, most wines offer fresh fruit, enough structure to marry well with food and some individual personality. From $12 to, say, $50, you can expect complex flavors of ripe fruit and new oak, enough concentration to develop with aging and a distinctive character stamped with the wine's creator and origin. Spend more time studying labels before you buy and you'll increase your chances of finding a wine to suit your tastes.

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