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Decoding Wine labels in France, Italy, Spain and Germany

The following is a guide as to what to expect on a wine label from different countries.

France

petrus
  • Château - The property where the wine is legally registered for production
  • AOC - The appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) which translates as "controlled designation of origin", is the French Geographical certification granted to wine and other products in France. It indicates the place of area of production and also the method of production & cultivation in some cases and grape varieties which can be used. There are currently over 300 French wines entitled to the designation AOC on their label. Often, distinguishing classifications requires knowledge of laws such as "Unless the wine is from a Premier Cru vineyard, the vineyard name must be printed in characters no more than half the height of the ones used for the village name" The quality control for the wine in the bottle is much less strict and has been the subject of much controversy. While a blind taster must approve the wine for it to receive AOC classification, this tasting often occurs before the product is even bottled, and by a local expert who may have family or business connections with the wine producer. Many AOC's send a delegation of officials to check that the vineyard is conforming to the required standards e.g. bunches per vine etc.
  • Cave - The French word for Cellar and it is used a pre-fix for a a group of growers or cooperative in many cases
  • Cru - Meaning gowth and often prefixed with a classification e.g. Burgundy Grand Cru
  • Mis en bouteille - Means bottled at the estate or Château where the wine was made
  • Vins de pay - One up from the basic vin de table

Italy

barolo
  • Cantina and Cantina Sociale - Cellar or winery, whilst the latter is a collection of wine producers or a coop.
  • Classico - Classico (classic) is reserved for wines produced in the region where a particular type of wine has been produced "traditionally". For the Chianti Classico, this "traditional region" is defined by a decree from July 10, 1932, and Riserva(reserve), which may be used only for wines that have been aged at least two years longer than normal for a particular type of wine. Wines labelled DOC or DOCG may only be sold in bottles holding 5 litres or less.
  • DOC - Denominazione di origine controllata ("Controlled designation of origin") is a quality assurance label for Italian wine and other products similar to the French AOC system though there is little quality control and means nothing in terms of choosing a wine. 
  • DOCG - These wines are analysed and tasted by government inspectors before being bottled. To prevent later manipulation, DOCG wine bottles then are sealed with a numbered governmental seal across the cap or cork which means that it is a better guarantee of quality than a DOC. For wines produced in Bolzano, where German is an official language, DOC may alternatively be written as Kontrollierte Ursprungsbezeichnung and DOCG may be written as Kontrollierte und garantierte Ursprungsbezeichnung.
  • Frizzante - slightly sparkling
  • Spumante - a full sparkling wine
  • Vendemmia - vintage
  • Vin da Tavola - Similar to the French Vin de table (Table wine) basic classification but attracts alot of basic Italian wine makers who can't be bothered with the lacklustre DOC sytem

Spain

rioja
  • Bodega - winery
  • Crianza - The lowest classification for Spanish wine that has been aged in wood for at least one year
  • DO - Denominación de Origen  (Designation of Origin – DO) is part of a regulatory classification system primarily for Spanish wines but also for food and meats. Wine region classification in Spain takes a quite complex hierarchical form in which the Denominación de Origen is a mainstream grading, equivalent to the French AOC and the Italian DOC. The Spanish appellation hierarchy was most recently updated in 2009, and are as follows:
    • DOC (formerly DOCa) - Denominación de Origen Calificada, is the highest category in Spanish wine law, reserved for regions with above-average grape prices and particularly stringent quality controls. Rioja was the first Spanish region to be awarded DOC status in 1991, followed by Priorat in 2003. 
    • DO - Denominacion de Origin, the main wine quality control system. Each region is goverend by a Consejo Regulardor, who decides on the boundaries of the region, permitted varietals, maximum yields, limits of alcoholic strength and other quality standards or production limitations pertaining to the zone. DOP - Denominacion de Origen Provisional - status may be granted to aspiring regions.
    • VCIG - Vinos de Calidad con Indicacion Geografica, a level proposed in 2005 for wines better than vino de la terra but below DO.
    • VdlT - Vino de la Tierra, a mid level regional wine that conforms to local norms without qualifying for DO status, the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays.
    • VdM - Vino de Mesa, the catch-all at the bottom of the pyramid that for all wine from unclassified vinyards and wine that has been declassified by blending. This includes both inexpensive jug wines and some of the country's most expensive and prestigious wines, not yet classified due to innovation outside traditional lines.
    • VP - Vino de Pago, a special term for high-quality, single-estate wines (Pago is the Spanish term for a vinyard) which in some cases also belong to DO or VdlT appellations.
    • VOS - Very Old Sherry (or Vinum Optima Signatum) and applies to sherries with an average age of at least 20 years. VORS stands for Very Old Rare Sherry (or Vinum Optimu Rare Signatum).
  • Joven - The basic unoaked wine in Spain
  • Reserva - A specially bottled wine that has been barrel aged for a period longer than the basic Crianza for probably 2-3 years minimum
  • Gran Reserva - The next level up from a Reserva, with barrel ageing for 5 years plus
  • Vendemmia - Vintage or year that the grapes were picked
  • Vino de la Tierra - wine of the land equivalent to Vin De Pays in France
  • Vino de Mesa - basic quality table wine

Germany

loosen
  • Beerenauslese (BA) - very sweet dessert wines
  • Deutscher Tafelwein - German table wine
  • Landwein - Vin de Table
  • Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) - quality wine from a specific region.
  • This is wine from one of the 13 wine-growing regions (Anbaugebiete), and the region must be shown on the label. It is a basic level of everyday, mostly inexpensive wine. The alcohol content of the wine must be at least 7% by volume, and chaptalization (adding sugar to the unfermented grape juice to boost the final alcohol level, which in no way alters the sweetness) is often used. QbA range from dry to semi-sweet, and the style is often indicated on the label, along with the designation Qualitätswein and the region. Some top-level dry wines are officially QbA although they would qualify as Prädikatswein.
  • Prädikatswein, renamed from Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) (superior quality wine) in August 2007 - Means "quality wine with specific attributes", this is the top level of German wines. These prominently display a Prädikat (ripeness level designation) on the label and may not be chaptalized. Prädikatswein range from dry to intensely sweet, but unless it is specifically indicated that the wine is dry or off-dry, these wines always contain a noticeable amount of residual sugar. Prädikatswein must be produced from allowed varieties in one of the 39 subregions (Bereich) of one of the 13 wine-growing regions, although it is the region rather than the subregion which is mandatory information on the label. (Some of the smaller regions, such as Rheingau, consist of only one subregion.)
  • The different Prädikat (superior quality wine) designations used are as followed, in order of increasing sugar levels in the must:
    • Kabinett - literally "cabinet", meaning wine of reserve quality to be kept in the vintner's cabinet fully ripened light wines from the main harvest, typically semi-sweet with crisp acidity, but can be dry if designated so.
    • Spätlese - meaning "late harvest" and typically semi-sweet, often (but not always) sweeter and fruitier than Kabinett. The grapes are picked at least 7 days after normal harvest, so they are riper. While waiting to pick the grapes carries a risk of the crop being ruined by rain, in warm years and from good sites much of the harvest can reach Spätlese level. Spätlese can be a relatively full-bodied dry wine if designated so. While Spätlese means late harvest the wine is not as sweet as a dessert wine, as the "late harvest" term is often used in US wines.
    • Auslese - meaning "select harvest"made from very ripe, hand selected bunches, typically semi-sweet or sweet, sometimes with some noble rot character. Sometimes Auslese is also made into a powerful dry wine, but the designation Auslese trocken has been discouraged after the introduction of Grosses Gewächs. Auslese is the Prädikat which covers the widest range of wine styles, and can be a dessert wine.
    • Beerenauslese - meaning "select berry harvest" made from overripe grapes individually selected from bunches and often affected by noble rot, making rich sweet dessert wine.
    • Eiswein (ice wine) made from grapes that have been naturally frozen on the vine, making a very concentrated wine. Must reach at least the same level of sugar content in the must as a Beerenauslese. The most classic Eiswein style is to use only grapes that are not affected by noble rot. Until the 1980s, the Eiswein designation was used in conjunction with another Prädikat (which indicated the ripeness level of the grapes before they had frozen), but is now considered a Prädikat of its own.
    • Trockenbeerenauslese - meaning "select dry berry harvest" or "dry berry selection"made from selected overripe shrivelled grapes often affected by noble rot making extremely rich sweet wines. "Trocken" in this phrase refers to the grapes being dried on the vine rather than the resulting wine being a dry style.