My last article illustrated the raft of global events conspiring to push wine prices upwards. My thesis was that wines of quality could not be judged solely by price. I was much encouraged by how many readers contacted me to seek answers to the some of the following questions. The general demand that if price was not an accurate guide, what information could be gleaned from the bottle and more importantly the label.

In the past such information was ‘translated’ by a wine merchant. As you or I would probably not seek to buy an exhaust pipe by picking the most attractive shape, nor select the most intriguing colour, equally when purchasing medicine, we would seek the assistance of someone who understood their subject. Given that supermarkets account for 85% of wines purchased precious few have made the effort to assist in the intimidating world of wine we inhabit.

In this world it is the label that becomes the descriptive document of the wine, the passport if you like that allows us to travel from country to country with some idea of where we are and where we have been.

The paper label is a new phenomenon dating back no further than the early 19th Century.

The Greeks were the precursors of identification with cylindrical seals found on amphorae, illustrating that the identity of the wine was as noteworthy as its flavour.

With the advent of barrels the wine description was often vague with more text being given to the place from whence the wine was shipped rather than where it was produced.

During the middle ages wine was served at table in earthenware jugs which in turn were refilled from barrels in the cellars below. Some such Delft jugs exist and often illustrate wine terms such as Claret, Sack and Rhenish, however they were more the forerunner of the decanter rather than the informative bottle we expect today.

It is to Germany we look for the first paper labels, often with the vintage hand written, as well as Northern France. It was the Champagne houses that pioneered the first labels, with year and place of production taking as much space as the house itself.

The giant leap in labelling came when wines began to be presented at table, in bottle. The restaurant, again a recent outpost of the wine trade, sought to provide a list of bottles from which to choose.

With the purchase of wines after World War II becoming a more egalitarian affair, the increased need for information was paramount, with bottles displayed for the customer to independently select  The need for the label as a guide to expectation was born.

In such limited space I cannot begin to cover the plethora of laws and edicts that emanate from the European Union and govern, country by country, the descriptions we face. For the discerning, most wines imported to Great Britain do have some consistency.

France still maintains one of the better systems of wine laws and therefore wine labelling in the world, although with many of our imported wines the reader is often required to hold a degree in four languages in order to translate the information.

Within the EU all wine must show its alcoholic content and liquid volume, expressed in millilitres. It will carry its place of origin, most French wines are named after a town or village or wider areas such as the Côte d’Or or Languedoc. In addition wines of higher quality are determined by a pyramidal system with Grand Crus at the summit followed by first to fifth growths, denoting the quality of the fruit picked and the exact vineyards sourced. Beneath these are the wines from a commune and finally from a geographic region with a prefix such as A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) which designates the best wines and guarantees provenance and grape varieties used to define particular characteristics.

Italy by comparison is something of an anarchic country, where the design of the label merely serves to provide visual interest rather than useful information. Where else in the world would you find a table wine (Vino da Tavola) encompassing some of the simplest local winse as well as some of the best and jaw-droppingly expensive – such as Super-Tuscan reds.

Germany, as you may expect, has some of the most disciplined descriptions, but managing to fight your way through eccentric Gothic script can be taxing. As a rule of thumb stick to QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) which are wines of high quality and where no added sweetening is allowed. As opposed to the often very ordinary QbA (Qualitätswin bestimmter Anbaugebeit).

Spain is often the most helpful where wines such as Reserva cannot be released until they are at least five years old, and Gran Reserva which has to be at least seven years old.

The Southern hemisphere, especially Australia, started their wine domination of recent years with very relaxed laws indeed. However, their principal gift to us was their use of the English and their insistence on identifying grape variety, rather than region or place.

So from South East Australia you will know the grape you taste is called Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. If you wanted the same two varieties in France you would need to know that their respective heartlands are from the villages of Chablis or Sancerre repectively.