POSTED ON May 27, 2011 | IN Wine Information | BY lise

Guest post by Lise Ciolino: Lise Ciolino and Vince Ciolino are the owners of Montemaggiore winery in the Dry Creek Valley. Lise is the winemaker, while Vince tends to the work in the vineyards. Janelle and I discovered the Montemaggiore wines years ago at a wine tasting in San Francisco. Once we tasted the wines we immediately arranged for a tour and tasting at this small winery hidden in the hills of the Dry Creek Valley. In this guest post, Lise gives us a very thorough and practical explanation of reading and deciphering a wine label.

Have you ever wondered what “Reserve” really means on a wine label? What
about “Estate” and “2008”? You may be surprised to learn that “Reserve” is
meaningless, “Estate” is meaningful only when joined with the word
“Bottled”, and although “2008” has a well-defined meaning, it’s not what you

The federal government regulates wine labels in order to prevent consumer
deception, yet some of their rules are quite obfuscating. Understanding
these non-intuitive rules can, however, clarify matters. The most important
rules to remember are the 75-85-95% rules:

  • “Syrah” (or any other varietal)
    means the wine is at least 75% of that grape variety
  • “Dry Creek Valley” (or any other
    American Viticultural Area) means the grapes were at least 85% from that
    geographic region
  • “2008” (or any other vintage)
    means that at least 95% of the grapes were harvested that particular year

But why would a winery want to produce a wine that is anything but 100% of
all those? The simple reason is economics. The most highly prized wines
tend to be (a) single varietals (“Syrah” sounds higher quality than “Red
Wine”), (b) from the most precise AVAs (Dry Creek Valley wine is more
valuable than California wine), and (c) of a particular vintage (Champagne
and Port are the only wines that can get away with NV or non-vintage). But
having some leeway to legally be less than 100% of each is useful to
wineries—so let’s see exactly how.

The 75% varietal rule allows wineries to market their wine as a “single
varietal” yet benefit from bottling a higher quality wine that is a blend.
You probably already appreciate the complexity of blended wines (e.g.,
Montemaggiore’s Cabernet and Syrah blend) and certainly Europeans have for
centuries. But wine marketing in the United States focuses on
varietals—wine shops, wine lists, and wine websites are all organized
by grape variety. Blends fall into the “other” category, which doesn’t
receive as many eyeballs—and can be harder to sell. Coincidentally,
Montemaggiore’s Syrah is our only varietally labeled wine (and it’s 100%
Syrah), while our Rosé, Reserve, Nobile, and 3Divas utilize fanciful names.
We also provide the exact varietal mix of those wines on the front label
(although we’re not required to do so).

The 85% American Viticultural Area (AVA) rule also allows wineries to have
the best of both worlds because the most precise AVAs command the most
respect. AVAs are hierarchical with the Dry Creek Valley AVA being inside
the Sonoma County AVA, which is inside the California AVA. A winemaker may
want to blend the same varietal from different AVAs to increase complexity,
or may want to blend varietals that grow best in different AVAs. For
example, Montemaggiore will soon be releasing our Syrafina which is 97%
Syrah from Dry Creek Valley and 3% Viognier from Russian River Valley
because these varietals can do really well in different growing conditions.
We legally labeled this as both “Dry Creek Valley” and “Sonoma County”,
which actually provides both the (majority) precise AVA and the (100%)
encompassing Sonoma County AVA.

The 95% vintage rule is one which Montemaggiore makes use of periodically.
For example, 2005 was a cooler vintage and our Syrah didn’t quite have the
balance of blackberry, blueberry, and cherry flavors that Lise enjoys, so
just before bottling she blended in 5% Syrah from 2006 (a warmer vintage)
which gave the wines a boost of fruit.

Aside from the 75-85-95% rules, two other rules are good to know:

  • a vineyard designate such as
    “Paolo’s Vineyard” must be 95% from that vineyard. But what is a vineyard?
    Does it have to be contiguous, of small size, or unique in some way? As it
    turns out, no. There is no concrete definition for “vineyard”!
  • a wine that is “Estate Bottled”
    must be 100% estate grown, fermented, aged, and bottled. That’s not
    obvious! And what is an “estate”? One might think that it’s a relatively
    small contiguous property owned by the winery. But in fact the only rule is
    that the vines be “controlled” by the bottling winery. And what does
    “Estate Wine” mean? Absolutely nothing… or absolutely anything!

Equally confounding are other terms that have no legal definition, of which
“Reserve” is perhaps the most abused. Montemaggiore, for example, made a
reserve wine in 2004 and 2007 because those were exceptional vintages which
made an exceptional wine. But other wineries make reserve wines every year,
and some even label every single bottle as a reserve. “Barrel fermented”
and “old vine” also lie in this category of undefined and potentially
obfuscating terms.

As you can see, there’s very little that’s black and white on a wine label!
Perhaps now, however, you will be better at judging a wine by its label.