Lots of domestic wine labels are easy to understand. It is clearly labeled whether it’s a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Chardonnay. But foreign wines can be a little tricky to decipher – a French wine label often omits varietal, and its notations (often in French) don’t usually make sense at first. The regulations for labeling wine vary by country, and each information may not be in the same place each time. Reading wine labels can be overwhelming, so here is a helpful break down on how to read a French wine label.
The company (or the wine’s trademarked name) must be on the label.
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.
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:
“growth”, like “Grand Cru”
French shorthand for “premier”, the French word for “first” (i.e. 1er Cru = “Premier Cru”)
Millésime or Récolte
translates as “an enclosure,” usually an enclosed vineyard (i.e. Clos du Caillou)
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!