Friday, November 27, 2015

How To Read a Wine Crate Label

Ever look at a wooden wine crate or box and wonder where it's from? Did you want to find out more about it or learn what kind of history it has? I certainly have and it's not always easy to do!

There are several thousand wineries in the world and only a small fraction of them make wooden wine crates. Fortunately this guide also applies to wines packaged in cardboard.

Some wine crates and boxes have many details on the vineyard, grape type and producer, but some only have a unique picture logo and a small amount of lettering. The rest is a mystery.

I can show you how to determine where most labels are from with certainty, but there'll be a few that you'll come across that may stump or trick you.

First the easiest and by far my favorite wine making country: France. Specifically Bordeaux:

Determining that a wine crate is from Bordeaux is the easiest thing to do once you know what to look for. Almost all have the designation (Grand Cru or Cru Bourgeois - Grand Cru being the best) the name of the winery and the vintage.

Here's another example:

The one detail missing from the Haut-Bages Liberal crate is the part of Bordeaux in which the wine is from or the "Sub-region" which is shown above on the Dauzac crate (Margaux)

Most Bordeaux wine crates detail the following characteristics from top to bottom based on level of importance:
  • Designation or Classification
  • The Winery
  • Sub-region
  • Vintage
Lastly, odds are that if the crate is designed to hold 12 bottles it's most likely from Bordeaux.

And that's the Bordeaux region in a nutshell. Since Bordeaux follows a set of rules called the AOC (Appellation Origine Controlee) you'll find a great deal of consistency from winery to winery.

Burgundy on the other hand is a more complex wine making region in France. The AOC of Burgundian vineyards isn't as strict in regards to conformity of branding therefore there's more of an artistic license given to the vineyards. Ironically Burgundy maintains a much more of an old world pretense where that freedom of artistic license is far more subtle.

There aren't nearly as many wineries from Burgundy that make wine crates. Bordeaux is by far the leader in that department.

Most Burgundy vineyards make 6 bottle wine boxes. Some make the 12 bottle size:

The Classification of vineyards is the most important here, and those classifications are based heavily on the sub-region aka Commune as well as the single vineyard(s) that the grapes were chosen from. There are essentially 3 types of fine Burgundy wine classifications:

Grand Cru or 1er (The best)
Premier Cru (Second best)
Bourgogne (Third best)

I don't want to get too much into classifications because there's enough on that subject to write a book. We're talking only about wine labels so let's get into Burgundy:

You can generally assume a French crate is from Burgundy if you see Domaine on it. You'll never see Chateau. You can also assume the vineyard is either Premier or Grand Cru and it's exceptional.

For the most part:

  • Domaine = Burgundy
  • Chateau = Bordeaux
Also, If you see the producer's first and last name the odds are that the crate is from Burgundy. All Burgundy wines are either made from Chardonnay (Whites) or Pinot Noir (Reds) grapes. If you see Chablis on a crate it's definitely from Burgundy.

Next up is the most complex wine making country in the World: Italy

There's 22 major wine making regions in Italy and over 100 sub regions inside those major regions. Each one has a fairly similar primary culture but each has a very different sub-culture from the others. These differences make mastering Italian wines a life-long endevour.

In this case we'll just take a few Italian wooden wine boxes and reasonably explain how you can determine whether or not its from Italy:

Some Italian wine crates have very little evidence they're from Italy. You can get tricked into believing it's possibly from Spain except for a few subtle exceptions:
  • European Cote of Arms designs are only found in old world regions (France, Italy and Portugal)
  • Marchesi Antinori is one of the most famous Italian wine makers
  • Solaia is one of the most famous Italian wines
Super-Tuscan wines of Italy are a fairly new phenomena, and the most famous ones make wooden wine crates and boxes to store and protect their wines. Super-Tuscan vineyards take Bordeaux grape vines and plant them in rich Italian soil, and they keep certain Bordeaux traditions such as making large 12 bottle wine crates and adding a vintage to them (Many Italian vineyards don't display the vintage on their wine crates). Below is the famous Sassicaia Super-Tuscan:

"Italia" on the bottom left is a dead give-away this crate is from Italy, and the vintage indicates Super-Tuscan. 

The vast majority of Italian wine crates don't have Italia engraved on them though, but some wineries display a great deal of information like the Castel Giocondo:

Clearly the Castel Giocondo is from Italy based on the following:
  • Riserva = Italian (Reserve = US and Reserva = Spain)
  • Frescobaldi is a famous noble family from Tuscany
  • Brunello Di Montalcino is a famous major wine region of Italy
Now we'll get into Napa:

Most US domestic wineries put alot of details on their wine crates. Since there's no rules for conformity in the US such as the AOC, Napa vineyards are free to do whatever they want in regards to standing out and branding themselves.

There's alot of information on the Harlan Estate "The Maiden" flat wooden wine case. No problem on quickly identifying.

Another one:

The Nickel and Nickel also provides alot of winery details, and also even provides the grape type (Cabernet Sauvignon). My favorite aspect of the winery is that they use the special single vineyard style of Burgundy and the grape vines of Bordeaux for planting in Napa Valley. This is why Nickel and Nickel is so famous. 

Last on the Napa list is the most prominent wine of all of Napa: Screaming Eagle

Some Screaming Eagle crates have details on them and some don't. If you get into fine domestic wines, your going to hear about Screaming Eagle very quickly. This is probably why Screaming Eagle doesn't provide many identifying details. Every US domestic wine enthusiast is familiar with it.

So we've gone through France, Italy and Napa. Up next is the Spain:

Spain is often confused with Italy and vice-versa if your not familiar. This is especially the case if your wine enjoyment focus is primarily US domestic, and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the Mediterranean wine world.

Spanish vineyards are usually confused with Italian vineyards because there's so few details on them:

There are 2 subtle indications that this is a Spanish vineyards:
  • La Nieta is a specific dialect of the Spanish language that can only be found in Spain
  • The Spanish style architecture. 
Here's another:

Same situation on the Spanish architecture, but the name indicates a possible Italian vineyard (but not really). Names of Italian wines are usually more elegant and elaborate. A one word name tends to be more modern and indicative of the New World.

This is a difficult Spanish vineyard to determine:

Remember the "Riserva" on the Castel Giocondo? Here's where that comes into play. Take a look at the fanciful text lettering below the Prado Enea and you'll notice "Gran Reserva". This is clearly a Spanish winery. Riserva = Italy and Reserva = Spain.

Another tricky Spanish vineyard:

Another point on regional dialects of the Spanish language: Bodegas = Spain and Bodega = South America

Lastly we explore South America, Portugal and Australia:

You'll generally find alot of details and indicators from vineyards in these countries. This Almaviva is a good example:

Clearly from Chile and includes all the details you need plus the vintage. It's made by Baron Phillippe Rothschild so you know it's going to be both good and pricey. 

Here's another Baron Rothschild vineyard and it's also from Chile. Has lots of details too.

There aren't many South American vineyards and fortunately they're easy to detect. One of the most famous from Argentina is below:

Fortunately the Achval Ferrer details that it's from Argentina on the bottom right hand side. Not all Argentinian crates or boxes have this detail though, so the "Bodega" dialect aspect will at least allow you to narrow down a region if needed.

This sums up the two most well known South American wine making countries which are Chile and Argentina. I don't mean to count out the other South American countries that make wine, but none that I know make wooden wine crates or boxes to package their wines.

Australia is next on deck and you can easily confuse them with US domestic or Napa wineries 

I've confused Australian and US domestic wine crates many times. Both have similar styles such as thick wood sides and lettering in English. Australian vineyards however tend to focus more heavily on either the region of Australia they come from, or the name of the vineyard itself. Most domestics display "Napa Valley" or the sub-region (city) that it's from in fairly small text. Australian vineyards on the other hand display those details boldly similar to how the wines themselves are: Also, the most famous grape from Australia is Shiraz.

Another Australian indicator is the fact that the country's wineries don't ever seem to make large 12 bottle wine crates. Most are either medium-sized 6 bottle wine boxes or 6 bottle flat wine cases like below:

Barossa and Clarendon Hills are two of the most well-known and recognized Australian wine making regions.

Last but not least we present Portugal which are by far the easiest wine boxes and crates to recognize. They all say Port on them! 

Portugal is considered an old world wine country but it has an entirely different culture than any other European country. The only similarity that traditional wine has with Port is that they're both made from grapes. Port however elegantly fortifies with Brandy.

In this example we have a very famous Port from Taylor Fladgate that got very high scores from Wine Spectator. The name of this wine is Vargellas Vinha Velha, but it's from the Quinta De Vargellas portfolio. This is another way that Port marches to the beat of it's own drummer.

Wood from Portugal is distinctive in the sense that it's typically more dense and rich colored than most other European wine crates. It tends to last long and age slowly. We had a Port crate from the late 1800's and it was in surprisingly good shape.

Do you have a wine crate or you can't identify? Feel free to send me a picture and I'll try to help


Follow us for special updates!

No comments:

Post a Comment