Wine: Read back labels with caution
Almost all wine bottles have a back label, usually the one you don’t see as you look at the bottle on the shelf. The front label has the design that is supposed to attract you to the wine — maybe an eye-catching image or typeface, maybe a smart brand name — while the back label does the grunt work of providing the information required by law, such as the name of the producer and, sometimes, the alcohol level.
But back labels often contain a lot more information — or “information,” as I’m pretty skeptical about much that I see there. I’m referring to the tasting notes that I’m afraid too many consumers take seriously. In fact, I’ve heard people in the LCBO read from a back label and make a decision to buy the bottle based on its description of the wine.
It’s not that these descriptions are necessarily misleading, but it is important to know that they are written to sell the wine. They’re not likely to refer to negative qualities, like green fruit flavours, unbalanced acidity, lack of fruit, unripe tannins, bitterness, and the like. So they tend, as you’d expect, to make the wine sound delicious. It’s what you would expect, as you expect a detergent package to tell you the contents wash whiter, and a deodorant package to tell you you’ll smell great if you use that deodorant.
One of the things I like to do after I taste a wine is compare my notes with the description on the back label. Sometimes they’re close; sometimes they’re unrecognizable. A colleague and I recently went through about 20 wines and carefully read the back labels of the wines we tasted. Many of them were quite recognizable — not necessarily the way I would have described them, but there are many ways of saying roughly the same thing.
But then there were the others. Two of the bottles were 2011 and 2012 vintages of the same wine by the same Ontario producer. The wines were quite different, largely because the vintages were quite different. But the back label description of each one was identical. And I bet it’ll be the same in 2013. That’s sheer laziness posing as information.
In another case, my notes on the wine (a cabernet-Merlot blend) noted greenness on the nose, green and thin flavours, unripe tannins, and tart acidity. My colleague agreed that it was poor wine. But the notes on the back label included words like “perfect balance,” “well structured,” and “exceptional.” Well, there’s such a thing as bottle variation (not all bottles of the same wine show the same), but this was pushing credulity a bit far.
The moral of the story: it’s difficult to decide on a wine when you can’t taste before you buy, but don’t place too much weight on the back label. Sometimes it’s a good guide, sometimes it’s not.
Email Rod Phillips at email@example.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at @rodphillipswine.
14 Hands ‘Hot to Trot’ White Blend 2011
This white blend (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and a little Semillon) has an equine theme. It canters in from Washington and shows well concentrated fruit that are solid from go to whoa, as well as a refreshing dose of acidity. It’s a versatile white for poultry and pork, and for spicy dishes featuring chicken, seafood, and tofu. 13-per cent alcohol; $15.70 (280859)
Peninsula Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2012
Niagara’s Peninsula Ridge winery established a reputation for crisp, well-flavoured sauvignons from its early days, and the 2012 vintage continues in that style. The flavours are nicely complex and consistent, and the acidity is clean and racy. Drink it with seafood and white fish, or with medium curries. 12.5-per cent alcohol; $13.95 (53678)
Cheval Noir Bordeaux 2010
This is a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux that delivers well for the price. Look for clearly-defined flavours that hold well from start to finish, along with nicely calibrated acidity. The balance is right, the tannins are drying and easygoing, and it’s a good bet for many red meat and poultry dishes, and for hearty stews. 13.5-per cent alcohol; $17.95 (361006)
Buried Hope Tempranillo 2010
This very attractive and good-value red is from Spain’s Ribera del Duero region, and is made from Spain’s signature red grape variety. All the components shine: the well-structured, complex and focused fruit, the balanced and refreshing acidity, and the moderate tannins. Try it with coq au vin, grilled red meats, and roasted poultry. 14-per cent alcohol; $19.95 (350215)