A wine label doesn’t tell you how the wine will taste but helps you understand what you are buying exactly. French wine labels contain a lot of information and if you just started to explore exclusive wines this may be confusing. In this blog we explain a few common French wine terms that make it easier for you to comprehend the details on the French wine labels.
Different wine label styles
First you need to know there are two important wine label styles. One identifies the wine by its brand and tells you of which grapes it’s made of, for example chardonnay. The second one identifies the wine by its region and appellation credentials according to quality level regulations. French wine labels focus on the region and appellation, and not the grape variety.
The basic elements of a French wine label
Let’s take a closer look at six important terms you will find on your exclusive wine:
1. The winery or producer
The name of the producer tells you who made the wine. The name stands out, or can be found at the top or bottom of the label.
2. The vintage
The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested. A ‘great vintage’ or ‘great wine year’ mainly depends on the climate, which influences the quality of the grapes and the harvesting. Sometimes you can have a great wine year in both Burgundy and Bordeaux, other years one region may be more lucky than another. When the label doesn’t mention a vintage the wine is made of multi-vintages and in general of lower value.
3. The Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP)
High quality French wines are controlled by a wine classification system called Appellation d’Origine Protégée or AOP. In 1935 the Institut National des Appellations d’origine (INAO) defined this strict system that indicates where the wine was produced - back then the system was called Appellation d’Origine Control (AOC). The AOP system is also used for food and other European agricultural products.
The terroir or place of origin is important with exclusive French wines as it gives the wine its character. In general the more specific the region on the label, the higher the quality. It can mention the region (Bordeaux), sub-region (Médoc) or even more specific the village (Pauillac). There are eleven wine regions in France:
10. Languedoc Roussillon
11. Sud Ouest
The Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) is an intermediate category that has less strict rules than AOP. IGP wines are often labeled with the grape varieties and the IGP zone. The most basic regional quality labeling is Vin de France. These wines can come from multiple regions, grape varieties and even vintages. They too are often labeled by grape variety.
4. The classification
Most regions in France have their own classification system. The most famous one is the 1855 Classification. The 1855 Classification exclusively mentions wines from the Médoc region, with one exception: Château Haut-Brion from Graves. The highest ranking for red wine is the Premier Grand Cru Classé followed by Deuxièmes Crus, Troisièmes Crus, Quatrième Crus and Cinquièmes Crus.
The Saint-Emilion wine classification is updated every ten years and has the following rankin: Premier Grand Crus classés A, Premier Grand Crus classés B, Grand Crus Classés and the Former Crus Classés.
There are (quality) wines produced in the Bordeaux region that carry the name ‘Grand Cru’ on their label, however these wines are not part of any formal classification - so don’t be misled and check the full ‘Grand Cru’ term.
In Burgundy a top-ranked vineyard is indicated by the label Grand Crus. There is no ranking system like the 1855 Classification or the Saint-Emilion Classification. The Burgundy classification is much easier to understand. It’s determined by the specific location or the terroir of the vineyard and not by the reputation of the château or producer. Only 2% of the Burgundy regions are classified as Grand Crus and 12% as Premier Cru, the next highest level. These high levels are followed by Village Appellation and Regional Appellation. Did you know only white and red Burgundy wines can be Grand Crus or Premier Crus?
Chablis (located in Burgundy), Beaujolais, Champagne and Alsace also have their own classification system:
- Chablis has four levels: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village Chablis and Petit Chablis.
- Beaujolais has three levels: Beaujolais AOC/AOP, Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais Cru.
- Champagne has two levels: Grand Cru Champagne and Premier Cru Champagne.
- Alsace has two levels: Grand Cru and Alsace AOC/AOP.
5. Mise en bouteille
this is the location where the wine has been bottled. Exclusive wines are always estate bottled: the wine was grown, produced and bottled on the wine estate. Wines made from grapes purchased from different locations are - in general - lower in quality.
the alcohol level of the wine indicates also how rich the wine tastes. Generally speaking wines with a higher alcohol level are made from riper grapes and have more fruit flavours - of course there are exceptions. Did you know many regions in Europe only allow their highest quality wines to have 13.5% ALC/VOL while in America this can be up to 17%?
Other important French wine terms
Besides these six main terms there are different other terms that may show up on a French wine label. We selected ten terms that may appear on your exclusive wine:
1. Centenaire: the wine is produced from grapes grown on vines that are more than 100 years old.
2. Château: the winery itself.
3. Clos: often seen on Burgundy wine labels. This is a walled vineyard.
4. Côte: the grapes of the wine come from vines that grow on a hillside or slope.
5. Coteaux: the grapes of the wine come from vines growing on multiple hillsides that are non-contiguous.
6. Domaine: a winery estate with vineyards.
7. Grand Vin: the wine is the producer’s best wine. Some winemakers have besides a ‘grand vin’ other secondary wines.
8. Négociant: this is the name of the merchant who has bought grapes or wine from growers and sells the wine under his own label. These wines are never estate bottled.
9. Propriétaire: the owner of the winery
10. Vendagé à la main: the grapes have been hand harvested
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