Wine Education Wednesdays: Understanding Wine Labels
Firstly, let us explain GIs or ‘geographical indicators’. These are designated vineyard areas within a country and they can vary dramatically in size, covering an entire region (like Bordeaux) or just a single estate (like Bolgheri Sassicaia). In the EU, GIs are split into two categories – Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). The former are generally smaller areas with more rules about what can and can’t be produced within them, the latter are much larger with less regulations.
HOWEVER, you will rarely see these terms on wine labels. The French prefer to use Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for their PDO wines and Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) or Vins de Pays for PGI. This is also the case in Italy, where they use Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Indicazione Geografica Tipica IGT, and in Spain where Denominacion de Origen (DO) and Vino de la Tierra are used instead – the formers having the stricter rules. Italy and Spain also have areas with even further requirements and these wines are labelled DOCG and DOCa respectively. In France, labelling terms also differ within regions – for example in Burgundy you will find further classifications Premier Cru and Grand Cru to indicate the top wines from that region.
Whilst it is generally assumed that PDO wines are of higher quality (due to the rules and regulations around yields, grape varieties, winemaking techniques, ageing, etc), some producers will label their wines as PGI if they do not want to conform to the regulations. A fantastic example of this is the famous Super Tuscans from Italy, which are labelled under the less prestigious IGT indication – but command some of the highest prices per bottle in the country. And this is a result of not using indigenous grape varieties – they have to label these wines as IGT as most are produced as Bordeaux-style blends.
In Europe, most PDO wines will not include the grape variety on the labels – and this is where it can become a bit of a blind guess when you’re choosing a wine in a shop, and you don’t know which grapes they grow within that PDO. Take Condrieu for example, they will never add the grape variety on the label because the only variety they grow in this GI is Viognier. And you are just expected to know that, WHICH, unless you’ve sat a good few wine exams in your time, you will quite probably not know.
Outside the EU, you may notice grape varieties are almost always mentioned on the label and this is because there are little to no laws that dictate what grape varieties can be planted in each GI, and therefore they really need to put the variety on the label so consumers know what they are drinking!
As you are probably beginning to grasp, this is a fairly in-depth topic, with a lot to get your head around – and this is really only the beginning. You will also see things like ‘vieilles vignes’, ‘vendanges tardives’, ‘riserva’, ‘crianza’ and ‘demi-sec’ written on labels and these phrases also give you clues as to the flavour profile of the wine you are picking up… but I think we’ll save that for another day. Stay tuned.