Between the Wines

A sommelier’s guide to deciphering wine labels


All you’re trying to do is find a decent bottle of wine, but some words on the label get in the way—which ones help and which ones hinder? Here are five things to know so you can move on to the drinking.

“Contains Sulfites”

This is an ominous warning meant to protect your health and safety from this dreaded wine additive, right? Not quite. Sulfites have been denounced for causing deadly allergic reactions, headaches and hangovers, but scientists say only 0.4 percent of the population has a severe allergy to sulfites. If you do, you’d know by now: iceberg lettuce, dried fruit, canned soup and commercially produced french fries would have sent you to the emergency room, since they all contain 20 to 40 times more sulfites than wine. The headaches and hangovers? Blame it on the alcohol.


It sure sounds better than regular wine, doesn’t it?  The people who market wine think so, too. But if the wine is from the New World (Australia, the U.S., Chile, etc.), it doesn’t mean anything but an upcharge. Wines from Italy and Spain, however, must undergo specific additional aging to qualify for riserva or reserva labeling.

“Old Vines/Vieille Vignes”

Older vines generally make better wines, just like an experienced professional generally will outperform an amateur. Unfortunately, no one has been able to decide if “old” means 20 years or 100. So take it with a grain of salt. Whether the wine is of discernably better quality is entirely up to the integrity of the producer.


The most popular buzzword to make anything sound better also appears on wine labels. Do grapes grown without artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides make wines that are better for you? Probably. But consider that the production of wine has two phases: the grape-growing phase and the wine-making phase. Most commonly, you’ll encounter the tellingly precise wording “made from organically grown grapes” on certified organic wine labels. This phrase allows wineries to add preservatives (sulfites) to the wine made from organically grown grapes and maintain their organic certification. But preservatives by their very nature are inorganic (remember that despite being the most common food preservative, salt (a.k.a. sodium chloride) is an inorganic chemical, and is lethal in large doses) so does that mean the wine is inorganic? Wines labeled as “organic” (referring to organic wine-making practices) do not allow the addition of sulfites and are therefore exceedingly rare, despite the fact that every wine contains some level of naturally occurring sulfites.

Long before the organic craze, many winemakers were practicing organic farming, because they felt strongly that that practice produces higher-quality grapes. But many still lack certification because they did not want to pay the cost associated with it; feared being associated with what is seen by many as a “fad” in winemaking; or simply did not want to back themselves into a corner should some misfortune that requires chemical intervention befall an entire year’s crop. So wine labeled as “organic” has been made with organically grown grapes … but so have many other wines without any labeling at all.

“Cabernet Sauvignon”

Short answer: When it comes to listing particular varietals on the label, it all depends on where it’s from. A little-discussed fact regarding the American wine industry is that we play fast and loose with label accuracy compared to other countries. The truth is that as long as the wine is made from at least 75 percent of the varietal listed, that’s good enough to earn the right to put the grape’s name on the label. But take heart, wine lover. You’ve been drinking and enjoying this entire time not knowing this particular fact, so keep pulling those corks with a newfound sense of magnanimity toward the varietals you like. I could, however, tell you a thing or two about who really writes those Miley Cyrus songs …


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