Basics: What Is Table Wine, Exactly?
Walk into any wine shop in America and ask for a table wine, and you’re likely to get a range of responses. One wine professional might claim that table wines tend to be lower in alcohol than other wines. Another might suggest table wines are youthful bottlings that haven’t spent much time aging. Others may say these are wines with reasonable price points.
They would all be correct because, technically, table wine can be all of those things—which makes it all the more confusing for consumers. Never fear, we’re here to demystify this very broad term. Here’s everything you need to know.
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What Does “Table Wine” Mean in America?
According to United States federal guidelines, table wine is any wine that is no more than 14% abv. That means any wine under that can technically be considered a table wine, regardless of the price, place of origin or quality level.
“Table wine is really just a catch-all term,” explains Charles Miller, a sommelier and brand director of Vin Fraîche Wine Group in St. Louis. “But to me, what I consider a table wine is a wine that I wouldn’t think twice about opening, and I think that’s how most people approach it.”
In other words, it’s that go-to bottle that works well at casual gatherings—even if that’s just a night on the couch with a bowl of popcorn. Generally, these are easy-to-find bottles that won’t break the bank.
“All of my favorite table wines are my house wines—they’re the wines I buy by the case and always keep around,” says Miller, pointing out Ronan by Clinet, a bottle of 100% Merlot that retails for about $15. “It’s an insane value. It has everything I want in a medium to full-bodied red wine.”
But although in the U.S., table wine has become synonymous with value, things get a bit more complicated across the pond.
How Is Table Wine Defined in Europe?
Years ago, it was common for European producers to label and explicitly classify bottles as table wine. These were often inexpensive and considered lower quality than appellation-designated wines. This didn’t necessarily mean the wines were bad, but rather, that they didn’t carry the same prestige as wines with specific origin indications.
However, the European Union changed label requirements in 2008. What previously might have been deemed table wine in France, Italy, Spain and other countries were categorized under one of three officially recognized buckets: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and, perhaps most simply, “wine.”
PDO wines have the strictest regulations of the three. They can include more specific information on the label, like the wine’s region, subregion or even the vineyard the grapes come from. Wines that fall under PGI category have fewer restrictions and can include blends of grapes from a wider area.
Bottles that fall under the “wine” category today are largely considered table wines in Europe—although you’re unlikely to see those words on the label. “Bottles don’t really say table wine anymore,” says Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, president of the International Wine Center in New York City. This is the broadest category and features the least specific information on the label regarding where or how the wine was made. These wines might feature labels that say “Vin de France” (translation: wine from France) or Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) in Italy and Indicación Geográfica Protegida in Spain.
The Pros and Cons of Table Wine
Generally, the biggest concern surrounding table wines is their quality. Some table wines can lack “focus and depth,” says Miller, especially those from high-volume wineries. However, if you know how to find them, there are plenty of delicious and distinctive table wines out there.
“In the U.S., we have amazing areas like the Columbia Valley in Washington State or the Central Coast of California that excel in making budget-friendly wines that taste good and are made for drinking anytime,” says Miller. “And certainly, across Europe, some producers are making incredibly focused, high-quality wines that aren’t breaking the bank.”
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There is also the stigma that low-priced wines are inherently poor-quality wines. However, that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to smaller producers.
“One distinction that I’d like people to understand is that a table wine and a mass-produced wine [can be] two very different things,” says Juan Cortés, a sommelier at The Chastain in Atlanta. “A table wine is just a wine made from fermented grapes; it’s not a lot of fuss, but it can still be good and have quality for value. But when you get into these mass-produced wines made by multi-billion-dollar corporations that crank out bottles in huge numbers, that’s something entirely different.”
Cortés suggests, in addition to looking for regional information on the bottle, taking note of the importer listed on the back of a wine. If the importer features in-depth information on the brands they carry, chances are the importer is “worth their salt,” says Cortés. “If you get a super cheap wine and Kermit Lynch imports it, you can bet your ass that it’s going to be a good wine.”
What’s most important, however, is to just keep exploring. “No one decides what’s good or not good other than you when you drink it,” says Ewing-Mulligan. “If you see a cute label that grabs you, try it. What’s the harm?”
Published: November 16, 2023