Wine labels can seem simple or very complicated. They are specific to each producer because they are part of a wine’s identity, even though in many respects they are subject to national and international legislation. Despite some information about bottled wine being compulsory on all labels (quantity, alcohol content, name of the producer or bottler, country of origin), laws and customs of all other aspects of everything else written on labels vary from country to country. Producers have a certain degree of freedom, although this is becoming increasingly limited. Many wines have two labels, one on the front and one on the back, to simplify the appearance of the former and, at the same time, provide all the "legally" required information. Sometimes they also use the increased space to include further information on how the wine is produced or, more often, a description of its specific taste! The brand, the producer’s name or that of his estate (which may or may not be associated with the terms château, domaine, estate, etc.) will almost always be placed in evidence. Throughout the world, two main variables are highlighted in order to try to give the consumer an idea of the style of the wine contained in the bottle: its place of origin and the variety of grape. These two classifications are increasingly used together. To simplify matters, European wines tend to identify primarily with the place where the grapes are grown (Bordeaux, Champagne, Chianti, Rioja, etc.), while the variety can only be found on the rear label, if it is even present. On the other hand, wines from America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand almost always use the variety as the primary element of information. However, labels of New World countries increasingly include the area where the wine was made: Napa Valley, Stellenbosch, Marlborough and Mendoza, for example. It is often very difficult to understand what is written on a bottle if a wine is sweet or dry. Only a few sweet wines, which are among the finest in the world, bear the term "sweet" on the label! You should know that a French wine from Sauternes, for example, and a German wine whose label reads Trockenbeerenauslese are very sweet wines. This is why it is always worthwhile speaking to a good wine retailer! When a year is printed on a label, it means that the wine was made from grapes harvested in that particular year. This is called the "vintage" or "year".
Are vintages important? In general, the colder the weather, the greater the difference in weather patterns from year to year. Consequently, vintages are more important in vineyards with these climates. As good as wine-making techniques may be, a good wine is produced primarily from ripe and healthy grapes. Therefore, the conditions for wine production are primitive and largely depend on the climate. Grapes are grown within fairly narrow range of climatic conditions around the world, avoiding hot and cold extremes. This temperate or "Mediterranean" climate can be quite variable from year to year, particularly with regard to the specific profiles of the season, i.e. from March to October in the northern hemisphere and from September to April in the southern hemisphere. Local climate factors, such as proximity to oceans, winds, risk of frost, hours of sunshine and rainfall will result in weather patterns that vary from place to place, even within generally similar climatic areas. Even from year to year within the same area. Mild areas with cool temperatures, especially those influenced by the oceans, tend to experience more variations than the warmer areas. Therefore, one could say that the difference in the quality of different vintages tends to be more significant in these areas. For example, a year with less sunshine and lower summer temperatures in areas with a cool climate can affect the ripening of the grapes differently depending on their variety, altering the flavour profile, as well as the sugar content. A "good" vintage is one in which the climate allows the growth of perfectly ripe and healthy grapes, in different quantities (some "good" vintages produce rich harvests, while others do not).
What is more important: variety, places or people? This question follows on directly from the previous one. The short answer is: it depends on the wine! The variety of grapes, and therefore the vine that produces it, has become a kind of international standard for identifying the style of a wine. However, by itself it is insufficient, since factors such as the climate in that particular area, the exposure of the vineyard, the composition of the soil, advancing technologies and wine-making techniques may also have a greater influence on the final style of a wine than the variety of grapes used. When wines are produced by blending different varieties, as is the case of most European wines (and some in the rest of the world), then things become even more complicated. The simple answer is that the variety, the territory of origin (we sometimes use the term terroir, which includes the local climate, the nature of the soil, the slope and exposure) and the human factor all play a role. Importance is relative if each factor varies depending on the nature of the wine. For example, a simple and cheap wine will rely more on the variety and production techniques to define its style. A more ambitious and expensive wine will depend more upon the characteristics of the place in which it is produced, together with the wine-growing and wine-making techniques used. These two examples underline the significant importance of the hands and minds of men. No wine is produced by itself! But no wine can exist without the variety and, in the case of more complex wines, without the mark of its territory.