How to Read a Wine Label: French Wines
The laws that dictate what information is required to be on a wine label is different in each country and can make deciphering them difficult. We're here to de-mystify the different elements of these labels so you can feel comfortable purchasing or ordering a bottle no matter where in the world you are. We figured we'd start with French wine labels since they boast some of the most confusing labels around.
Starting with the bottle on the left, the label lists the bottle's origin as France and the vintage as 2010. Below that is the most important part; the appellation or individual wine region which is called 'Appellation d'Origine Controlee' or AOC.
This designation means that under the control of the French government, the specific area is a unique wine growing region and all grapes in the wine come from that region in particular. In this case, the region is Bordeaux which is identified as 'Appellation Bordeaux Controlee'.
Also, under this designation, only certain varietals are allowed to be used in wines from that particular AOC. To call a wine a Bordeaux, the wine must come from that region and must have a combination of the following varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.
It is interesting to note the bottle on the right, which is from Bergerac, has 'Appellation d'Origine Protegee' or AOP designation rather than AOC. Confusing right? Wrong. The terms mean absolutely the same thing and AOP is actually scheduled to replace the AOC designation in 2012.
Now you know the region, but what about the winery or chateau? The bottle on the left does not signify a specific chateau or winery that it is produced from, while the label on the right distintly says it comes from Chateau Marquisat la Garosse. This most likely means that the wine on the left is sourced from fruit in several vineyards within Bordeaux and not primarily from one Chateau.
On the bottom of each label it reads: 'mis en bouteille...' which means that the 'wine has been bottled' and then is usually followed by 'au Chateau' or 'at the Chateau'. In this case, each wine above was bottled 'par' or for a certain company or negociant, so the label reads 'Mis en bouteille par...", 'wine has been bottled by...'
It is important to add that the particular AOC or AOP does not coincide with the name of the grape like in the US. Rather it is an indicator of the wine region itself . Because of the strict regulations, the varietals found in each region will always be the same. Below are some of the most common appellations and the varietals you will find in them:
- Bordeaux- Primarily either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with the optional blend of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot or Malbec. The wine on the left, for example, is a blend of just Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. White Bordeauxs will have Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and/or Muscadelle
- Chablis- Chardonnay is the primary grape of this region in Burgundy. Common Chardonnay also includes Pouilly Fuisse, not to be confused with Pouilly Fume which is Sauvignon Blanc.
- Beaujolais- Gamay noir.
- Champagne- The Northern-most region in France. Blanc de Noir will have mainly Pinot Noir and Blanc de Blanc will have Chardonnay. Most Champagnes combine the two grapes and also even add in a bit of Pinot Meunier.
- Sancerre- Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley.
- Chateauneuf de Pape- From the Southern Rhone Valley, this wine primarily has a blend of Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre.
- Vouvray- Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.
- Cote du Rhone- Mainly Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignane in varying degrees.
- Cahors- Lesser known wine region to the South primarily with Malbec and some Merlot and Tannat.
- Bergerac- Like the bottle on the right. These wines contain the same varietals as Bordeaux wines, but are from a different region in the South of France.
There is also the 'Cru' system of classifying wines from France, cru meaning 'growth place'. The 'Premier' and 'Grand' Cru designations are meant to indicate a specific area where the grapes are grown that provide a unique terroir (or earth component) to the wine. For Bordeaux, Premier Cru is the highest classification for certain vineyards that you can reach and is many times translated as 'first growth' in the United States. In Burgundy, on the other hand, Grand Cru is given the highest classification above Premier Cru and refers to the best classified vineyards of that region.