Deconstructing Wine Labels: A Basic Introduction

Sunday, August 24, 2008

I really didnít know what I wanted to write for this weekís column, as I am just coming off of the holiday weekend, and am also trying to burn through another summer cold (that damned air conditioner).  However, several incidents all led me to start looking at the perception of wine based on the actual label, and what people have come to think of wines based on that.


Last week, Tab Bishop, Jim Reed and I settled down for lunch over at the Capitol Grille.  Both of these guys are legends in their own right, and we initially met through our involvement, if not attendance, in events, both social and political.  Jim mentioned to Tab about the column, and that people didnít believe him that he knows a wine connoisseur; for the record, I am definitely not that, but more of a wine vivant.  Jim quipped about the wine that he remembers had the interesting commercial, remarking ďwhatís the price?Ē  For those of you that donít remember the commercial, it was actually for Thunderbird wine, which should in no way ever be considered as a wine [of any standing]. 


The prior day, I had made my way over to the state store on Chestnut Street between 12th and 13th Streets in order to find some wines for last weekís article.  While I was there, one woman and I got into a conversation as she was trying to find a wine to cook with.  I referred her to Sherry, but told her that outside of that, I would need to know the recipe that she was using, but I did tell her a few good wines that would pair well with the basic taste spectrum of her meal.  As we progressed in our conversation, she made a reference to Taylorís Port, and it was interesting, because many people have made negative references to Taylorís Port.  However, they were actually thinking of Taylor Port; the bottle doesnít even look the same.


A case of mistaken identity: Taylorís Port vs. Taylor Port


Taylor Port, a staple for the average wino, meaning the guy that you see standing outside the liquor store panhandling for change, or the economically less fortunate that just want to get a quick wine buzz on.  But donít confuse this with Taylorís Port, which comes from a company really known as Taylor, Fladgate & Yeaman.  Believe it or not, Taylorís is the number one producer of port in the world.  Taylor is out of New York and runs less than ten dollars a bottle; Taylorís is out of Portugal and can easily go into costing one hundred dollars to topping out at over a grand a bottle.  I have had thirty and forty year old Tawny Port from Taylorís that has absolutely rocked my world.


Lesser grades from a great producer


Now, I am one to definitely dog a lesser release from a wine producer, but I do understand that winemakers produce different levels of wine, usually at least three, with corresponding prices to each level.  Kendall Jackson produces one of my favorite Chardonnays, however, itís not the one that you are being served in many a restaurant.  Youíre getting the Vintnerís reserve which definitely is not the best stuff out there, just like you are not being served the best grade of steak when you go to Outback, Red Lobster, or Dennyís.  Many wine producers suffer from the general public unfortunately assuming that the entry level releases are the best that that producer puts out.  And then on the flip side, you have the phenomenon whereas the same general public gets fixated on believing that the entry level product is something phenomenal, not because of how it tastes [to them], but because of what they read about one of the better releases from the same producer.  Kendall Jackson Vintnerís Reserve is a prime example of both of these dynamics.  Some people believe that itís fabulous because they read the review for another grade of chardonnay from them, and then restaurants serve this because people are buying it en masse from the stores.


And there is yet another phenomenon that happens, which is like the previously mentioned one, and that is when a wine producer, sometimes in collusion with a wine distributor, and sometimes also in collusion with a big retailer (PLCB anyone?) goes to great lengths to push a load of low level wine on the average consumer, backing it up with a number of great articles, promotional materials and/or having the producer itself come out with a new label for it.  An example of this is when PAís Chairmanís Selection has a wine just made for them; donít get it, theyíre robbing you!!  I remember seeing a Kendall Jackson Chardonnay that was private or limited release and that went for like $17 in PA, but I could not find this wine at all in NJ.  This really said something as to what this wine was and definitely what it wasnít.


I like Chianti, but this doesnít taste like Chianti Iíve had before


The most common problem with wines, and understanding them, is when wines are labeled based on their region of appellation and/or denomination.  This is most evident in wines from Italy and France and other Old World European countries, where you often here about Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, Super Tuscan, Champagne, Port, Rhine, and Valpolicella wines.


Now, wines in these regions are usually made from the same grape, as in the example that white Burgundy wines are made from the Chardonnay grape.  However, in the case of a Valpolicella, the wines are the result of a blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes.  You could get two wines both called Valpolicella, but they could be miles apart in taste as well as where they were made.


This is the scenario in which when someone says to you that they like Chianti, for instance, that you really have to ask what type of taste and style that they really like in their wines, because you canít assume that they like the traditional style of a particular place.



Summarily, while there are some other things on the label which can tell you a lot more in regards to the wine that you either will be drinking, or leaving on the shelf, this in itself is a good primer.  Hopefully, some of you out there will actually try a Taylorís Port, and maybe Iíll need to throw together a wine tasting of their wines to help educate people on the different.  Hmmmmm, I could also have two wines of different levels by the same producer so that you can start to notice the difference.

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