September 25, 2015
Decoding a French Wine Label
Ah, French wines… Legendary French wines. Let’s face it: most of us have already found ourselves wandering through the French aisle of our favorite wine store, looking for the perfect red Bordeaux to enjoy with that braised lamb we’re serving for dinner. And most of us have felt the same frustration and confusion when trying to decode the foreign label – and ended up going back to familiar territory. French wine labels can be a little intimidating; if you believe this is the case, this guide is for you.
The main thing to note is that, contrary to the United States, French wines are labeled by region instead of by grape variety. So if you’re looking for a Pinot Noir, don’t expect to see it indicated directly on the label of the bottle – some research or an understanding of France’s specific wine regions will be necessary.
The vintage and producer of the wine are generally quick to spot on the label. Then comes one of the most useful pieces of information, the “appellation”. The French wine classification system includes three main categories:
AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) or AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) – translated as “Controlled/Protected Designation of Origin”, this is the highest category in the system, as well as the one with the strictest rules. In the French labeling system, this appellation must abide by a set of regulations that dictate the origin and style of the wine. This appellation is a way to control the authenticity of the wine rather than its quality: to be AOP/AOC, the wine has to come from a designated area, a specific winemaking region, and the wine has to be produced according to the rules and methods of that geographical area.
IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) – just a step down in the French wine classification system is the “Protected Geographical Indication”, which rules are less stringent than the AOP/AOC, but still indicates the wine’s geographical origin within France.
Vin de France – translates as “French table wines”, this is the lowest level in the hierarchy, and the least regulated category. Contrary to the IGP and AOP/AOC, the “Vins de France” do not necessitate nor indicate a specific geographic zone for the wine. Wines that belong to the “Vin de France” category can be produced anywhere in France, from grapes sourced from any part (generally several different regions) of the country. The main difference is that this category allows the mention of the variety used; it also indicates the producer and vintage.
The label also gives some information regarding the estate bottling. If you see the mention “Mise en bouteille au Château” or “Mise en bouteille au Domaine” (bottled at the estate), the wine has been produced with grapes grown and harvested in the winery’s own vineyards. On the other hand, “négociants” are merchants who buy grapes or wine from growers and sell the wines under their own label – in which case “Mise en bouteille par” will be followed by the name of the négociant.
And lastly, here is a little cheat sheet for the translation of all these words you spot on your bottle but do not understand:
Crémant – A style of sparkling wine other than Champagne (not from the Champagne region; example: Crémant d’Alsace)
Vendange – Harvest; you will also find the words “vendange tardive”, which means “late harvest”
Millésime – Vintage
Cuvée – Specific house blend
Vieilles Vignes – Old vines
Cave – Wine cellar
Cru – Literally translates as “growth”, it denotes the status of a winery or vineyard. Cru Classé, Premier Cru and Grand Cru mean, respectively: Classified Vineyard, First Growth and Great Growth (considered the highest-quality wines)
Sec/Doux – Dry/Sweet. The French “Demi-Sec” is our Medium-Dry.
Remember; although this is just a brief overview on French wine labels, it will be a great starting guide for your hunt for French wine!