If you're just starting out collecting wine, you probably find wine labels more than a little daunting.  How do you pick through all the fine print and strange words to get the information you need?  What's just advertising and what's useful to know?

Although every wine bottle is different, and labeling practices differ between countries and even wineries, there is information listed on every bottle that will help you find out more about the wine in the bottle.  Let's decode it:

Wine maker or winery: Usually in the largest font and often at the top of the bottle (though it can be located in the middle or bottom too) is the name of the company that made the wine.  In the French label pictured here, the winemaker is Jo Pithon.French Wine label

Vintage: Contrary to popular belief, vintage does not denote the year the wine was bottled, but rather the year that the grapes were harvested.  Some wine makers may wait several years before turning grapes into wine.  Here, the vintage is listed as 1994.

Appellation: The bottle will always list the country or region where the grapes that made the wine were grown.  Appellations can be as broad as "The Napa Valley" or as specific as the vineyard the grapes were grown in.  But beware: just because the wine label lists a certain appellation doesn't necessarily mean that all the grapes that went into the wine were grown there.  Most regulations allow from as much as 15% of the grapes to be grown elsewhere.  Here, the appellation is listed in the middle of the label as Coteaux du Layon St. Aubin. This information is also listed near the bottom of the label.  The word Controlée after the appellation means that the area the wine was grown in is defined as a wine-growing region by French law.

Varietal: Many, but not all, wine labels list the varietal, or the specific kind (or kinds) of grapes that went into the wine.  Most Italian and French wines (like the one pictured) do not list the varietal, because their wine laws dictate that the wines from each region must be made from traditional varieties.

Ripeness and Quality: Some wines list information about the ripeness of the grapes used.  They may also list information about the quality of the wine.  This is common in wines from Germany and Austria (but wouldn't it be helpful information from all wineries?)

Other: Much more additional information is often available, what it is depends on the bottle.  If a wine is estate bottled (made from grapes grown in the winery's vineyard), the label will usually say so.  The wine's alcohol content and the size of the bottle will usually be disclosed.  In the U.S., the back label of the wine will contain the Surgeon General's warning regarding alcohol consumption and whether the wine contains sulfites.  The back label also, of course, carries the description of the wine, but you can usually disregard this as advertising hype rather than useful information.

Next time you purchase a bottle of wine, take a second look at the label.  You can learn a lot about the wine in the bottle if only you know where to look.