Bottle Etiquette | How to Read a French Wine Label
Have you ever noticed how wines from France tend to have—how shall we put this—rather stodgy-looking labels? There’s reason for this, and it has nothing to do with a French lack of artistic flair.
Ah, the French and their never-ending viniculture rules, which also apply to wine label design. Yet, once you learn the reasoning behind the rules, you’ll never need another tasting note to pick out your next Bordeaux or Burgundy.
First and foremost, because there are over 200 grape varieties grown in France, French wines are categorized by region, not grape. This explains why their labels typically do not include the grape variety. It helps to know which grapes are grown where in France (see map). Searching for a French Gamay? Head straight for the Beaujolais section.
When deciphering French labels, some basic knowledge of the language of Molière will come in quite handy. Here are commonly used terms to test your high school French:
Blanc de Blancs: made with 100% white grapes
Blanc de Noirs: white wine made with 100% black grapes
Côte: hill, slope
Cuvée: tank, but in this case means a specific wine blend
As with great literature, never judge a French wine by its label design—judge it by what its label says.
French Appellations Explained
One of the largest wine producers in the world, France oversees the most intimidating appellation regulations, called AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), of which there are 360 within 11 main growing regions, such as Bordeaux or Alsace.
AOC is the strictest classification: no irrigation, only local grapes can be used, no added sugar, and ripeness at harvest are all aspects that must be adhered to. Your alcohol level is 0.5% too high? Your wine is now classified at another level (IGP or Vin de France). AOC is broken down into three subcategories:
> Commune, like Pouilly-Fuissé
> Sub-regional, including Mâcon-Villages
> Regional, as in Bordeaux or Burgundy
IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée), or Vin de Pays, is your everyday French table wine. This appellation is less strict with grape varieties, as long as the grapes come from that region. For example, a Pays D’Oc wine must be sourced from grapes from the Pays D’Oc.
Vin de France only accounts for 13% of all wine produced in France. This wine must just come from France, sourcing the grapes anywhere in the country.