Of Wine Labels and Snacks

By / Magazine / February 21st, 2011 / 1

Any tips on how to read a wine label?

Talk about blind tasting. If you’re having trouble reading a wine label, it might be time to put down the bottle and feel your way to your eye doctor for a checkup. All kidding aside (at least for this paragraph); I do acknowledge that with the way some winemakers play with their panels you have to be nothing short of a U.N. translator to figure out what they’re trying to say.

Describing the ins-and-outs of each county’s labelling rules would take most of this magazine, so suffice it to say that there are two design camps: Those pitching their tents in the Old World and those in the New World.

The Old Worlders (basically anyone famous for pressing grapes into vino before Elvis died) are all about location, location, location, and celebrity. Over centuries of working their terroir off, vineyard owners in the likes of France, Italy and Spain began to create a geographical hierarchy worth bragging about so “place” was a key label element. Those particularly good at their liquid craft slapped their family name, or the name of their swanky mansion, above their address.

Except for the Germans, the only Old Worlders who gave a cork’s toss about adding grape names to their labels were those who picked their berries in less regulated (i.e. not so posh) regions. Anyone with a famous postal code expected their customers to know from whence they pressed their juice.

On the other hand, New Worlders (those countries whose output your father would have drunk from a paper bag at his high school graduation dance) started with next to nothing: No reputation, no recognizable geography and certainly no hope of winning over the public with ornate labels loaded with fancy-pants wordsmithing.

Those in places like South America, Australia, California and here in Canada chose fruit and celebrity to populate their panels. Who they were was as equally important as it was for the Old Worlders, but what they were made from was a simple (and non-trademarked) way of capturing the audience of burgeoning wine nerds coincidentally discovering wine around the same time the New Worlders started to send their good stuff to the North American market (circa the late 1980s).

Funny thing is, most people can describe the taste of Merlot a lot better than they can the taste of Bordeaux; so much so that many Old Worlders are rethinking their rules and allowing the fruit to rise to the top of their labels.

Someone told me that Chardonnay goes great with popcorn. Are there any other cool snack food and wine pairings?

Chardonnay? How pedestrian. While I get how the buttery flow of many Chards could meet the buttery topping of a heaping helping of microwaved goodness head on; when it comes to washing down a mouthful of Orville Redenbacher I reach for a bottle of bubbly. In fact, something sparkling is a perfect partner for just about anything served by the bowl and eaten while plopped on the couch.

I mean, come on, haute cuisine like popcorn, pretzels and potato chips have a fairly salty personality so something clean, fresh and creamy makes a nice yin to their yang. Of course, if you pop a bottle of most high end champagne (like I’m sure Dom Pérignon did when he had the boys came over to watch the big game) you’re getting a hefty portion of Chardonnay in the blend, so all is good in the world of oddball wine pairing.

While I’m partial to Pringles with a nice Spanish Cava, I’m really more of a Cheezies type of guy and prefer an aged red Burgundy. (Yeah, right.) Think a lighter-bodied Zinfandel or fruity Merlot because they both work surprisingly well with whatever that bright orange stuff on a Cheezie really is.  

If you have to experiment; fruitier, stand-alone white wines make nice with eclectic food mates even if they are sold by the bag. Try serving something made with Viognier, Torrontés, or good old Riesling next time you get the munchies.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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