How to Read French Wine Labels
Our most recent International Wine Club feature has 3 selected wines from Bordeaux, France! As you open your anticipated wine delivery box and unveil your wines, you realize the labels look a bit different...what type of wine is it? What does Grand Cru, Grand Vin de Bordeaux or Cru Artisan even mean?
We’re here to dig down and shed some light on how wine labels in France differ from those we see in the US.
Firstly, we need to lay some “ground" rules, if you will, regarding the concept of terroir. One of the main differences you’ll see, other than the language barrier, is the fact that France labels their wines by the region rather than the grape varietal as the US often does. This reiterates the fact that there is a strong connection between french wine regions and the unique characteristics of the wines from those areas. For example, wines from Bordeaux will show different qualities than wines from Burgundy, and so forth.
In France, these areas are called AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) and, if you live in France or are a French wine expert, these labels can give you a better idea of the quality and type of wine you are purchasing; perhaps more so than only stating the wine’s varietal. In the US, these regions are called AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) and while we have a sense of the terroir concept, we focus more on the individual varietals rather than the location of the winery and/or vineyard. Let’s give you an example.
As stated earlier, Bordeaux wines as a whole have different characteristics than wines from, say, Burgundy. However, each of these larger AOC’s have smaller, more distinct ones within them; differentiating our featured wines from Saint-Émillion, Graves and Médoc from one another. While they’re all from the larger Bordeaux region, these 3 smaller AOC’s will produce wines with different inherent qualities due to their specific terroir.
Are you still with us? Good.
Now, one more tidbit of information and we’ll be on our way! European wine labels in general are required to state more information than labels do in the US, such as the wine’s quality level. This is always listed on French labels under a few different names but essentially, the more specific an appellation is = the better the quality. Typically wines that state AOC Village and up on the pyramid are superb quality, with Grand Cru sitting nicely at the very top, as these are the best of the best (Crus Classés translates to “classified growths”). This ranking is difficult to obtain and is given to a vineyard or region as a whole, not necessarily a specific vintage of wine. Why? Well it ties in with our first point about soils and regional characteristics. The classifications in Bordeaux are, in part, given to the terroir of a winery as much as the vintners due to “dedicated human intervention over many generations to ensure quality” according to Vins de Bordeaux. Basically it’s up to the vintners to make the best of what the land is offering.
So let’s get on with it! Enough beating around the bush and as we promised earlier, here is a dissection the 3 featured French wines and their labels:
2009 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
This wine label from Château Tour des Combes right off the bat gives us significant clues as to the quality of the wine. You can see the winery name and the “type” of wine are the most prominent elements.
“Type” is in quotations because this is where we would usually see the varietal name on a US label. Directly under this is the official name of the designated appellation (AOC). The quality is clearly stated as “Grand Cru” - yep, it gets a seat at the top of the pyramid! It even states the individual vineyard from which the grapes were grown.
2016 Graves Grand Vin de Bordeaux
The label for our featured white wine from Château Pontet Reynaud gives us a little less information than the previous wine. But you can see a majority of the same elements are included, such as a specific region (Graves) within Bordeaux, already making it a superior wine. At the very top of the label you can also see it says “Grand Vin” which is showing you that this is the best wine from the winery.
2014 Médoc Cru Artisan
Last but certainly not least is another red wine feature from Le Fleuron de la Tessonnière. Looking at the label the very top line is, again, stating that this is the best wine from the winery. Farther down you can see it is from the Médoc appellation, bottled at the château, as well as gives us the specific vineyard location.
All great signs!
In the bottom left corner you’ll see it says Cru Artisan. This is a classification that was introduced to the Médoc region over 150 years ago and is now given to small wineries producing high quality, outstanding wines.
There you have it! Once you know what to look for, reading a French label is a breeze. Now that you're a pro, you can go show off your superior French wine selecting skills while actually knowing what to look for.
À Votre Santé!
A Short List of Useful French Terminology:
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC): a designation guaranteeing the wine was produced in said region and have used the techniques and standards required for the region.
Blanc: white wine
Bouteille: wine bottle
Château: commonly used for wineries in Bordeaux
Cru: “growth” - typically referring to a higher quality vineyard or region
Cru Artisan: a classification for exceptionally small wineries producing high quality wines
Domaine: commonly used for wineries in Burgundy
Grand Cru: a classification for a region’s best vineyards
Millésime: the vintage - referring to the year of harvest
Mis en Bouteille: indicates where the wine was bottled
Premiere Cru: “first growth” classification for a winery’s second best wine
Proprietaire: winery or vineyard owner
Rouge: red wine
Terroir: literally translates to “earth” but it is also a concept that specific soils and regions produce unique characteristics that are reflected in the finished wines.
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