The 1-2-3 approach to understanding difficult Wine Labels

Vin, vino or wein – these words strike a common chord since all of them mean “wine” as we know the word in English, and have an uncanny phonetic similarity. Similar meaning words across languages have some common aspects, whether it is the syllables or the phonetics. And these can be related-to sub consciously.

The details, however, lie in deliberation and this brings us to the subject of difficult- to-comprehend wine names, if only so, initially.

 Czech wines
Czech wines

According to a forecast by IWSR, global wine consumption  is poised to show impressive growth in the run up to the year 2017. Intensive promotion activities have been rolled out in the preceding years to introduce wine even to Spirits consumers. And wine producers from around the world are enthusiastic to have a share of this pie. The only hitch? Unfamiliar label terminology particularly when related to wines not familiar to the respective consumer.

I was a bit surprised (even if pleasantly) to receive an invitation from the Ambassador of the Czech Republic in India H. E. Mr Miloslav Stašek for a tasting of Moravian wines from the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia bifurcated into the ‘Czech Republic’ and ‘Slovakia’ in the early nineties).

The guest Sommelier from the Czech Republic, Aleš Pokorný, presented very attractively labeled Czech wines to an audience of wine professionals in New Delhi. At the outset, I found that the wines were enjoyable, specially the Irsai Oliver that was aromatic and off dry with characteristics quite close to the Muscat varietal.

But, the wines that evening hit a perception barrier – that of unfamiliar names and I could not get myself to enjoy it as much as I should. So I delved deeper, I found that this problem was surmountable, provided some basics were followed. And presto! The 1-2-3 approach to understand difficult Wine Labels was structured.

The genealogy of grapes


Ever since man started cultivating grapes, and trans-continental voyages became a reality, grape varietals have proliferated to distant lands from their place of origin. Further, graftings have yielded derived varietals, giving rise to new genomes. These varietals have been interpreted differently in the local languages – depending on the country of cultivation, similar varietals will get different names. For example, Pinot Blanc is Weiss Burgunder in Germany/ Austria; whereas in the Czech Republic it is Rulandské Bílé.

At times, varietal names may differ within different regions of the same country too, but that will take us into the next level . I was able to engage Aleš in both an extensive (over time) and intensive (in content) exchange, and I chose the Czech varietals as a case study.

Drawing these parallels, we can easily get acquainted with different sounding but essentially the same varietals.

One: Establish phonetic similarity

Does Ryzlink ring a bell? Does Sylvánské sounds familiar? Indeed, these are Riesling and Sylvaner respectively, as we commonly know them. Identify phonetic indicators in unfamiliar wine names and you are already half way there. Some examples:

Tramin = Gewurztraminer
Vlašský = Welsch
Rýnský = Rhine
Veltlínské = Veltliner
Zweigeltrebe = Zweigelt
Frankovka = Blaufrankisch

Czech wines at the New Delhi tasting
Czech wines at the New Delhi tasting


Two: Draw parallels

This exercise needs more effort, as the unfamiliar terms will have to be mapped to their common versions by querying the source (in my case Aleš) or Google. Some examples are:

Rulandské = Pinot
Bílé = Blanc
Modré = Noir
Modrý = Blue
Šedé = Gris
Pozdní Sber = Late Harvest
Jakostni = Quality
Víno S Prívlastkem = Highest classification in Czech wines

Three: Get it all together

The task is to leverage familiar words within a complete name and draw conclusions. The other terms in the label would invariably relate to the specific region from where the wine originates or quality related terminology.

Rulandské Modré Rosé = Pinot Noir Rosé
Víno S Prívlastkem = Quality wine
Kabinetní Víno = Quality sub-classification

Inference: A Pinot Noir Rosé wine with the quality sub classification ‘Kabinett’

Frankovka Rosé = Blaufrankisch Rosé
Víno S Prívlastkem = Quality wine
Pozdní Sber = Late Harvest

Inference: A Blaufrankisch Rosé wine made from late harvested grapes

Modrý Portugal = Blauer Portugieser
Víno S Prívlastkem = Quality wine
Výber Z Hroznu = Quality sub classification (selected grapes)

Inference: A Blauer Portugieser wine made from special selection of grapes.

There may however be exceptions, where the above logic will not apply because the particular grape varietal is native solely to a particular country. In such cases, there is no option but to remember the varietal and take down the tasting notes for posterity.

This model that I have detailed, can be applied to understand wines from any other country having local names for international grape varietals. So next time you are confronted by an alien looking wine label, just pause to look deliberately and you may well find your new love in wines.

(This is the blog version of my similar article in vino india)

Col Joe
wirtten by: Col Joe
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