Message in a bottle: an easy six-step guide to reading wine labels

Happy Romantic Couple Toasting With Wineglasses In Cafe

Well-written tasting notes are invaluable in deciding whether an unknown wine is something you’ll actually enjoy drinking.
Photograph: Victor Torres/Stocksy United

The thrill of a stacked wine section takes some beating: glowing rows of white, red, rosé and sparkling, a whole world just waiting to be explored. The only problem is deciding which direction you want to take. Which wine will best suit your tastes?

Once, figuring this out would have been next to impossible for those who didn’t know the language, so much remained a mystery: the difference between rioja and ribera del duero, for instance, or the grape varieties you’d find in a given bordeaux blend.

These days, a good wine label is better than a holiday phrasebook, and achieves many of the same ends, guiding the drinker to the right destination without the bother of learning all the grammar first. These labels now offer enough information for everyone, from amateurs to obsessives.

So, what’s in a label – and what matters?

It’s all about the where
“Look for a place,” says Kevin Meehan, Tesco wine product development manager. “Good wine should offer a sense of where it comes from, and wines that proudly call out their origins on the label will have been made with a sense of pride in that place. It’s often regulated too, so there are minimum standards the wine must meet in order to use the name of a region.” On Italian wines, for example, you might see DOC, or designation of controlled origin – which is a mark of quality and origin.

But not about the when
As for vintages: many of us think we should worry about whether 2019 was a good year for Argentinian malbec, or whether a hot, dry 2018 summer in Burgundy made for great chablis premier cru. But actually, these days that is less of a concern. Not only have winemaking skills improved to such an extent that winemakers are much better at managing weather fluctuations, but the old saying, that the best producers make good wine even in a bad year, holds true. Buy good wine and you won’t need a good year.

Tasting notes: the basics
“Aromas of black fruits and coffee, followed by notes of spice and chocolate” may not mean much at first, but the more you study, the more that tasting notes can help you with your wine choices.

Clear, well-written tasting notes are invaluable in deciding whether an unknown wine is something you’ll actually enjoy drinking – and is the key to expanding your horizons. Meehan advises reading the label again after you’ve tried the wine, so that you remember, for future reference, the flavours that really make your tastebuds light up.

Tesco Wine boxout

So, if your first love was a cabernet sauvignon for example, seeking its tasting notes elsewhere might lead you to a black-fruit-aroma pinotage. And if you like beaujolais, chances are you’ll go on to love valpolicella ripasso – it has the same red and black cherry flavours, but more depth and is great with pasta. Or if yours is a prosecco, try blanquette de limoux, an ancient French fizz that is just as dry, but with a bit more texture and lovely stone fruit and brioche flavours.

This works with food flavours, too: if you love pepper sauce with steak, seek out wines with a slightly peppery flavour (the back label should tell you so) such as a syrah or shiraz (two names for the same grape). Or if you’ve got a thing for rum’n’raisin ice-cream, try pouring the Spanish sweet wine pedro ximénez over vanilla: another sweet raisiny dessert, but with a touch less sugar and a bit more alcohol. That way, you can make wine an integral part of dinner.

Tasting notes: intermediate level
At this stage, picking your wine becomes almost as much fun as drinking it. Comparisons are how experts expand their knowledge, and this is a game that everyone can play. You may never have heard of either greco or falanghina – two white varieties from Campania in southern Italy – but the Tesco Finest versions of both are the same price (£9) and made by the renowned producer Feudi di San Gregorio. Yet the flavours are very different: the first green-apple crisp, the second gentler, more floral. Which is better? That depends entirely on your palate, so try both and you will know which way to lean with white wines in future.

Or, to better understand a variety, pick versions to compare. Tesco Finest Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are two admired sauvignon blancs from appellations just 10 miles apart in France’s Loire valley. The range’s New World rieslings are rather farther apart, from either side of the Tasman Sea, but still make an intriguing contrast: both are dry, but the Tingleup, from the exciting Great Southern region of Western Australia, is pure and citrussy, while the New Zealander has more peach and honeysuckle. The more you “practise”, the more confident you’ll be using once-obtuse tasting notes to find what you like.

Pouring a glass of red wine

The more you ‘practise’, the more confident you’ll become using once obtuse wine terminology. Photograph: Bastian Lizut/Getty Images/EyeEm

Finally, you probably don’t care about …
Sulphite. If you don’t know what a sulphite is, you can strike that off your “to-scrutinise” list. Almost all wines contain sulphites, and saying so is simply a legal requirement – like alcohol percentage.

… but you should pay attention to
Awards. Many of the wines have won prestigious awards, and the bottle will tell you that, too – look for gold, silver or bronze medals by established awards bodies such as the International Wine Challenge.

Lastly, take note not just of awards or regions but also of the producer. These talented winemakers can be a jumping-off point for further discovery.

Follow the clues, and the labels of bottles can be a passport to all the wine regions of the world.

From familiar favourites and brilliant brands, to exceptional wines created with the Finest winemakers – there’s the perfect pairing for every food, mood, reason and season at Tesco. Explore the range at


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