The ABCs of AOC: Foreign wine labels laid bare

In a perfect world, wines would be labeled “Good, Cheap Red Wine” and “Great, Expensive White Wine.” But we live in a capitalist world, where marketing lures people to the dark side with pretty pictures. Experienced drinkers already know the byzantine insider lingo — from DRC (Domaine Romanée Conti from Burgundy) to Groovy (Gruner Veltliner from Austria) — and can recognize the good deals, but the rest of us stand clueless in the wine aisle at Publix.It doesn’t have to be this way. A label primer:

FRANCE My rule of thumb when buying French wines is insultingly easy: the more writing on the label, the better (albeit more expensive) the wine. Four classifications tell you the level of government-deemed quality (from highest to lowest): AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée); Vins Delimités de Qualité Superieure (VDQS); Vins de Pays; and Vins de Table. In an effort to maintain consistency, within each growing region laws delineate grape varieties, watering restrictions and growing techniques, as well as labeling. But recently, after wineries whined that these restrictions strangled their international competitiveness, the French government decided the Vin de Pays level could now show the grape name, instead of just the region. Finally, we’ll be able to pronounce something.

ITALY Italy’s wine laws correspond eerily to those of France. But, with the exception of Chianti, the country’s regions as well as its grapes are less familiar. Four levels of quality shed light on what you should buy (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 are Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Chianti (with seven subdistricts) and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, where your best deals will be had. Chianti, made from the fruity, red Sangiovese grape, has three levels of quality specifically for that brand: Chianti Classico Riserva, Chianti Classico and Chianti. Knowing producers is not as important as remembering that well-priced Chianti Classico is a reliable choice.

GERMANY 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 implied and omitted. Quality gradings are (from highest to lowest): Qualitat mit Pradikat ; QbA (Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete); Landwein; and Tafelwein. Really the only German wine you want to bother with is Qualitat mit Pradikat. Because Riesling can be both dry or sweet, they invented a six-level Pradikat labeling system, signifying the ripeness — or sweetness — of the fruit at harvest: Kabinett, the least mature; Spatlese; Auslese; Beerneauslese; Eiswein; and Trockenbeerenauslese. The best regions are Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau, so look for those, choose your sweetness and experiment.

SPAIN The Spanish, as with everything else they do, make wine-buying easy. Their labels simply reflect the name of the maker or shipper, and the region. As in the U.S., there are no quality classifications and few government rules. Three regions produce the majority of exported Spanish wines: Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Penedés. Hearty garnacha and tempranillo grapes provide the foundations. Also look for the word “Reserva” which indicates higher quality.

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