How to Read a Wine Label
John Larrysson Column

Most people can greatly expand their knowledge of wine by just being able to read the label on the bottle. This week I will explain the most basic details. First some wine regions have ranking systems to judge the quality of their wines. Second there are some special words to describe wine. Third, there are different types of grapes. Wine is only made from grape juice; beer and vodka are not wines. (Wines made from other fruit, such as cherries, are called cherry wine, not wine.)

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The wine rankings began in France, so I will explain their standard system. They have four major rankings, which I will call Grade A, B, C and D. At the top is A, which they call Grand Cru Classe (There are several rankings within this rank such as Premier cru, Premier cru classe and Premier Cru Superieur.) The B class wines are marked Appellation d'Origine Controlee or Appellation < place name > Controlee . The C class wines are the Vins de Pays or country wines. At the bottom are the Vins de Table, which means table wine or normal wine. Grand Cru Classe wines may sell for thousands of dollars a bottle. Vins de Table are sometimes so cheap that they are the choice of street sleepers. However some wine companies are known for producing wine of better quality than their rankings; knowing the companies helps one get a better deal. (Plou & Fils is often grade A, but is not ranked as such. Companies with Vins de Table or Vins de Pays ranking, but that produce grade B wine include: Comp del Roc, Les Cave de Rocbere and Domaine Lombard) Some Vins de Table is of reasonable drinking quality and some is best used for cleaning shoes. A chart below will compare different region's rankings.

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audio 3 (Wine Vocabulary)

Try to avoid asking for red or white wine. Instead name a grape variety; wine is made from grapes. (White and rose wines can be made from red grapes.) Many good wine companies will blend different grape varieties. The most famous red grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Shiraz. The best known white grapes include Riesling and Chardonnay. There are also many famous local varieties such as Vidal (white) from Ontario and Zinfandel (red) from California. As you may have noticed, grape varieties are capitalised as names.

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There is a lot more to understand about wine. However these points will help you to at least read the wine label. Remember that some companies have such a good reputation that they can ignore the rankings. F grade wines are best suited for street sleepers, cooking and cleaning shoes. However poor wine is often sold in good looking bottles at a high price. Read the label and don't get cheated.

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In this chart, Canada refers only to the wine growing areas of southern Ontario and British Columbia. The American and Canadian ranking systems are more limited than in Europe. Certain Canadian companies are sometimes in the A grade, Inniskillin, Cave Spring Cellars, Marynissen and Reif. Certain American regions are known for better wines, such as the Napa Valley. Good Napa Valley companies include: Dominus and Opus One.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.