From Burgundy to Champagne, French wine sweeps all the accolades. But to the English speaker, the glut of Gallic words can be confusing. Hopefully, this guide to understanding French wine labels can come in handy the next time you find yourself in a bottle shop.
If you’re like most wine drinkers today, you probably buy by grape variety. Seeing a Marlborough Bay sauvignon blanc or a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon feels familiar, if not comforting.
It’s a different story when it comes to French wine. Producers traditionally do not state the grape variety on the label. Instead, they highlight the region. This can be vexing even among wine professionals.
“I like to know what kind of wine I’m drinking,” says Nicolas Joanny, chef and owner of Nicolas Le Restaurant, who has over 1,500 mostly French labels at his eatery. “If I’m in the south of France and I don’t know what grape it is, how will I know if I like it?”
The rise of natural wine isn’t helping either. Avant garde winemakers are ditching baroque castles for abstract landscapes, gnomes, even their child’s scribbling. “Sometimes it’s tough even to find the vintage,” says Joanny. “It’s like trying to crack the Da Vinci code.”
While different regions have different laws, what we’re trying to do here is give you the basics. We’ll show you how to break down a label, understand classifications and terms, and what to look for when you’re buying wine.
We won’t guarantee you’ll be a master sommelier tomorrow, but we dare say you will be drinking better.
Breaking it down
This is a classic example from one of the bigger Burgundy wine producers. As we mentioned before, French winemakers focus on where their vin comes from, and usually it’s the most prominent word on the label. In this case, it’s Chablis, a district in northern Burgundy.
Under the word “Chablis” is “Appellation d’Origine Controlee”. This is a geographical indication (we’ll get more into this below) and refers to the regulations the winemaker has to follow before calling their wine a Chablis. At the bottom is the winery Louis Jadot, which was founded in Beaune in 1859.
Geographical indications (GI) are legally defined labels that protect the origin of a food product. Used primarily in Europe, they regulate everything from meat to cheese. When you eat prosciutto di Parma or manchego, you’re consuming a GI-protected product.
For French wine, GIs come under a three-tier pyramid system. This system dictates where the grapes are grown and how the wine is made, among other regulations. The higher the tier, the stricter the laws, and at the very top is:
Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)
- AOC can cover a wide area or one vineyard. Laws are strict and wines at this level can be considered premium.
Indication Geographique Protegee (IGP)
- One tier down is IGP. Laws are similar to AOC wines but more flexible. IGP regions tend to be larger.
Vin de France (VdF)
- Wines that don’t make it into the above categories fall under here. This doesn’t mean the wine is bad. It allows winemakers to be experimental and some produce exceptional examples.
Terms to know
Here are some common terms that appear on French wine labels.
- Appellation: a legally defined wine region.
- Chateau: usually refers to the name of the producer. In some cases, winemakers use domaine or proprietaire.
- Cru: vineyard or vineyards that produce good quality grapes.
- Terroir: the environment in which the grapes are grown, from the air to the soil.
- Vintage: the year when the grapes are harvested.
What to look for
Think about design: Some regions have become shorthand for expensive wines – think Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne – but what the winemaker does in the cellar matters too. “You can have great terroir but make shit wine,” quips Joanny. He recommends looking at how someone designs their label. For him, a reliable marker is something clean and simple. “That usually means [the winemakers] are farmers and they’re only focused on making good wine.”
Explore different GIs: An AOC wine usually commands top dollars, but there is plenty of value to be found in IGP bottles. If you prefer natural wine, many of them fall under VdP.
Consider the environment: Due to the climate, two regions can make wine from the same grapes but would taste completely different. Even if you don’t delve into such granular differences, it’s pays to know where they lie. For example, a pinot noir from the cooler Loire Valley would be lighter than a bottle from the slightly warmer Burgundy.