Wine 101: How to Decode a French Wine Label

Most domestic wine labels are pretty straightforward – you can see clearly when you’re purchasing a Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Merlot.  But venturing into foreign wines can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated – a French wine label often omits varietal, and has a bunch of notations (in French, bien sur) that don’t immediately make sense upon first read.  Even the most seasoned wine professional can get stumped by a wine label now and then – the regulations for labeling wine vary by country, and each component may not be in the same place each time.  For new wine aficionados, reading wine labels can be overwhelming, so we’ll break down a French wine label here for you.

Producer

The company (or the wine’s trademarked name) must be on the label.

Vintage

The year the grapes were harvested for the wine.  This is not always present on the main label – some producers will use a neck label to denote vintage instead.

Appellation title or sub-region

An appellation is an officially formed wine region within a country.  For example, “Pauillac” is a specific appellation within Bordeaux, a wine-producing region in France.  Each appellation must abide by a set of regulations that dictate the quality and contents of the wine from that region, in order to be considered a true wine of that appellation.  “Appellation Origine Controlée” or, AOC, will be on the label if the wine is produced according to these guidelines.

Varietal

Unlike many New World wines, French wines often don’t include the varietal on the wine label.  This is because each appellation has a specific type of grape(s) they are permitted to grow and include in their wine, in order to qualify for an AOC labeling.  For example, all wines with a Bordeaux AOC denomination are limited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec for red wines, and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and a handful of other white varietals for white wines, grown in very small quantities in the area.

Estate Bottling Information

The words “Mise en bouteille au Château” mean that the wine has been produced with grapes grown and harvested in the winery’s own vineyards.  If the winery uses grapes grown by someone else (a negociant), the label may say “Mise en bouteille à la propriété” (bottled on property).

Other words to know on a French wine label:

Cru – “growth”, like “Grand Cru”

1er – French shorthand for “premier”, the French word for “first” (i.e. 1er Cru = “Premier Cru”)

Vielles Vignes – old vines

Blanc – white

Rouge – red

Millésime or Récolte – vintage/harvest date

Cuvée – house blend

Clos – translates as “an enclosure,” usually an enclosed vineyard (i.e. Clos du Caillou)

Crémant – sparkling wine not from the Champagne region (i.e. Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne)

Have we left anything out?  Please feel free to ask our wine experts questions in the comments below.  Santé!

Essential Reading: Books for New Wine Geeks

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Whether you’re a new wine aficionado or a seasoned collector, these five picks – three reference guides and two “just for fun” books – are a great starting point for building a wine library.  If you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, reading about wine can be just fun as drinking it!  (Okay, almost.)  Any other must-have titles you recommend?  Leave us your essential reading lists in the comments below and be entered to win a copy of “The World Atlas of Wine”!

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