In a perfect world, wines would be labeled “Good, Cheap Red Wine” and “Great, Expensive White Wine.” But we live in America, where marketing reigns and often lures people to the dark side. But with a little label savvy, buying great wine can be an experience that exercises your brain rather than your wallet.
The rule of thumb when buying French wines is simple: the more writing on the label, the better (and more expensive) the wine. Four classifications tell you the level of quality determined by the government (from highest to lowest): AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), Vins Delimités de Qualité Superiéure, Vins de Pays and Vins de Table. The French regulate which grapes can be planted in which region, and within these regions, certain perfectly situated plots of land merit the words “Grand Cru” or “Premier Cru.” This specifies the big daddy wines from the best areas — and you’ll need a sugar daddy or mama to afford them. Look for AOC and figure out the region where your favorite grapes grow, and you’ll be set.
Italy’s wine laws correspond eerily to those of France, but Italians raise the whole labeling thing to a higher level of nightmarish complexity. In addition to regulating the grapes for certain areas, Italy spews forth more than 23,000 different wine labels, listing the formal name of the wine blend on them. Four levels of quality separate the good, the bad, and the ugly (from highest to lowest): DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantia), DOC, IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica), and Vino da tavola. Within DOCG, nine “zones” are delineated. The five best known, and available, are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (in seven sub-regions) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Chianti is a red wine from Tuscany made primarily of the Sangiovese grape. These wines are divided into three levels of quality: Chianti Classico Riserva, Chianti Classico and, simply, Chianti. Knowing Chianti producers is not as important as remembering the levels of quality, but you may develop favorites. Grab a well-priced Classico and you’re good to go.
With all the Gothic script on German labels, it’s a wonder we can read them at all, but at least they’re easier to decipher. German labels reflect quality grading and normally list the name of the grape, but Riesling is often inferred and omitted. Quality gradings are (from highest to lowest): Qualitat mit Prädikat, QbA (Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete), Landwein and Tafelwein. Really the only German wine you want to bother with is Qualitat mit Pradikat. Within this distinction lie six levels of sweetness, and legally the sugar must be attained by allowing the grapes to ripen on the vine (as opposed to adding sugar, a process called “chaptalization”). In ascending order of sweetness: Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. The best regions are Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau, so look for those, choose your sweetness and experiment.
The Spanish make life simpler. Their labels simply reflect the name of the maker or shipper and the region. Quality classifications don’t cloud your mind, and there are few government rules. Three regions produce the majority of exported Spanish wines: Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Penedes. Hearty Garnacha and Tempranillo grapes provide the foundations. Also look for the word “Reserva,” which indicates higher quality.