Wine: Read back labels with caution

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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 rod@rodphillipsonwine.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at @rodphillipswine.

 

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Connect with Rod Phillips |@rodphillipswine|rod@rodphillipsonwine.com