French wines are incredibly popular, yet many people, including some wine aficionados, can feel uncertain about the information on a French wine label. Since French wine labels fall under different laws and came about in a different culture than American wine labels, they can feel difficult to decipher.
Have no fear. French wine labels are easy to decode once you understand the information they contain and the words they often use. Keep reading to make sure you read your next French wine label correctly, whether you're popping Champagne or cracking open a Bordeaux red or white Burgundy. Once you get the hang of reading French wine labels, you'll feel equipped to select and discuss all of the best French wines.
How to Read a French Wine Label
Generally, the higher quality a French wine is, the more information it contains on its label. We'll walk you through some of the basic pieces of information often found on French wine labels, and explain why that information is considered important.
The Importance of Terroir
The first thing to understand about French wine labels is that they almost always share the region the grapes used to make the wine were grown in and (with some exceptions) do not include the grape varietal. This practice marks the biggest difference between French and American wine labels.
The French label their wine by region rather than varietal because of their focus on terroir. "Terroir" is a French word that doesn't perfectly translate into English, though most wine drinkers are probably familiar with it. Terroir refers to all of the environmental factors that give grapes their particular flavor. These factors can include local climate, soil content, weather patterns, elevation, nearby bodies of water, local plants, and more.
French wine labels focus on terroir instead of varietal because a single grape varietal tastes different when grown in different terroirs. For example, grapes grown in colder climates tend to be less sweet and more acidic. Vintners believe the mineral content of soil also greatly influences the flavor of wine, though scientists haven't yet pinpointed which minerals create which effects. Research suggests that microbes such as bacteria and fungi also influence a wine's flavor profile.
Wine Region Classifications
French wines are classified by region, and generally fall into one of three categories:
- Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP): The most prestigious French wines name their appellation on the label. An appellation is a specific, regulated region also referred to as an AOC, AC, or AOP. Well-known appellations include Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. Over 300 appellations exist, and some of them have overlapping boundaries or are contained within another appellation. In English, appellations are referred to as "Protected Destinations of Origin", with the American wine equivalent being referred to as an "American Viticultural Area" or "AVA". In addition to the appellation, some of the best French wines list very specific location information such as "villages" (the village) or even "clos" (the specific vineyard, often enclosed by a wall).
- Indication Geographique Protégée (IGP): Wines listing an IGP on their label usually contain grapes from a region that's wider than an AOC. IGP wines are not subject to as many regulations as AOC wines, so they are often considered less prestigious. Some IGP wines are very interesting, however, since the loosened regulations allow for more experimentation. Wines that list an IGP often also list the varietals contained in the wine, which can provide a useful point of reference. In English, IGP is called "Protected Geographical Indication." IGP wines with vintages older than the European Union (formed in 1993) might say "Vin de Pays" followed by a region instead of "IGP," due to a change in labeling laws.
- Vin de France: If a wine label only says "Vin de France" on it and doesn't contain further information about where the wine comes from, the wine is considered a French table wine. A "Vin de France" wine isn't bad, necessarily, but it also isn't likely to be of the highest quality. High-quality wines generally boast where they come from more specifically. "Vin de France" isn't specific enough to tell the wine drinker much about terroir.
Most French wines list a year on them. This year is the vintage, or the year in which the grapes were harvested. Often the vintage stands alone on the bottle, but sometimes it is preceded by "Annee," which simply means year, or "Millésime," which means vintage. Some of the lower-quality "Vin de France" wines do not list vintages at all.
The vintage of a wine is important because factors in the terroir can vary from year to year. If there is excessive rain or heat one year, the grapes will taste different than they would in a year when there was a drought or mild temperatures. Because vintage influences grapes' flavor, it can also impact the price of a wine. The same wines from two different vintages can vary greatly in terms of cost.
Identifying the Best Wines
"Cru" is the word to search for if you're wanting top-of-the-line French wine. Although the word technically means "growth," vintners use it to denote their best wines. Unfortunately, the various "cru" phrases used on wine labels are not consistent from region to region.
In Burgundy, "Grand Cru" (great growth) refers to the best of the best and is only found on 2% of wine labels from this region. "Premier Cru" (first growth) is the second-highest wine classification in Burgundy. However, in Bordeaux, "Premier Cru" is the highest designation a wine can receive, followed by "Deuxiemes Cru" (second growth), "Troisiemes Cru" (third growth), and so on. Some regions use "Grand Vin" (great wine) instead of "Grand Cru" to identify their best wine.
Buying French Wine
If you're ready to dive deeper into the wonderful world of French wine, please check out our extensive selection of over 2,000 French wines. At JJ Buckley Fine Wine, we have excellent wine for all of your needs. Need help choosing? Don't hesitate to use our consultancy services. We're ready to assist!