In a very small amount of space, you get the who, what, when, and where of the wine. Despite all of these details, wine labels still lead to a lot of consumer confusion.

What’s In A Label?

by Michael Warner

A wine label is like a tiny masterclass in journalism. In a very small amount of space, you get the who, what, when, and where of the wine. Despite all of these details, wine labels still lead to a lot of consumer confusion. Oddly enough, the confusion does not stem from the information that is disclosed but what is not. Ingredient labels are not required for wine, which presents an opportunity for marketers to sow doubt about competing brands without having to claim anything of substance about their own wines.

Marketers use this approach because it works, and it’s an effective way to sell a lot of undistinguished wine. So what are these marketers actually saying, and what do their claims actually mean? Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently used claims and give them some context. 

Marketing Claim:  “Our wine has less than 1 gram of sugar.”

Less sugar sounds great, right? Less sugar means fewer calories, right? In some cases the answer is yes, but for most dry-style wines, the answer is no. During the fermentation process, natural grape sugars are converted into alcohol, and alcohol has -- you guessed it -- calories. Ultimately, you end up with more-or-less the same number of calories regardless of whether or not the wine has residual sugar or not. 

Most fine wines are fermented to dryness, which typically corresponds to about 1.5 to 2 grams of residual sugar per liter, so notice the math trick that the marketer uses: “Our wine has less than 1 gram of sugar.” A bottle of wine contains .75 liters of wine, which at one gram of sugar is 1.33 grams per liter and very close to the normal range for dry wines. 

Although you will never find a calorie count on a bottle of wine, you can use a little logic to guess the relative number of calories. Lower levels of alcohol generally correlate to lower numbers of calories in wine, so seek out dry wines with alcohol between 11.5 - 13%. Lower than that, and you’ll probably end up with a sweet tasting wine. Go higher, and you have wine from ripe grapes that contained more natural sugars prior to fermentation and hence more calories in the final product. 

Marketing Claim: “Our wine has low sulfites -- less than 75 parts per million.” 

Natural sulfites exist in all wines, but that’s not really what marketers are talking about. They’re talking about added sulfites, so that’s what we’ll focus on. 

Some winemakers use sulfites at various points in the production process to prevent errant bacteria from producing off flavors or aromas. Most winemakers add sulfites at the time of bottling for largely the same purpose, and the best winemakers use only the minimal amount necessary. Some natural wine producers don’t use any added sulfites at all, though doing so can be risky and requires extreme amounts of care (and luck!) during the winemaking process. From a practical standpoint, most winemakers don’t have the option of not adding at least some sulfites. 

On average, wine has about 80 parts per million (ppm) sulfites. Well-made red wines generally have around 50 ppm, and many natural winemakers consider around 25 ppm to be the right amount. So claiming that your wine has 75 ppm is simply claiming that you’re average -- not exactly something to brag about. 

Marketing Claim: “Our Wine is Gluten-Free” 

My English professors used to say “never write never” and “always avoid always” because exceptions inevitably exist. So for this marketing claim, I will simply write that wine almost never contains gluten and is nearly always gluten-free. Even in the exceptionally rare instances where gluten exists in wine, the amount almost always falls below the FDA acceptable limit of 20 ppm for gluten-free foods. The bottom line is that you can safely assume that the wine you’re buying is gluten-free. 

At the end of the day, wine is something of an indulgence. Although some might beg to argue, we don’t need wine to survive, and making health claims about wine somewhat misses the point of it. When enjoyed in moderation, wine provides many benefits -- it helps us to relax, it makes meals more enjoyable, and helps enliven conversation with others. The best and most effective way to enjoy wine and a healthy lifestyle is to simply drink better wine and a little less of it. 

Simple steps are usually best. Use a small glass to limit the size of your pour. Enjoy your wine with a meal, and you will naturally consume a little less of it. Sharing a bottle with friends will cut down on your share a bit, and it will improve your social life by even more. Now why don’t more marketers make that claim?