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Wine tips: reading a French wine label


Most New World wine labels are fairly straight forward – it’s obvious what the winery name is, the state and region are listed, and varietals are listed. French wine labels are also very easy to read – but only once you know how. To beginners in French wine, it can be intimidating seeing a mass of words scattered all over the label with no rhyme or reason to them. There are also a number of terms used on French wine labels that require some explaining.

Most high-end French wines are designated by a registered appellation. These wines are regulated by the AOC, and can be distinguished by the words: Appellation _____ Contrôlée. The middle part of that phrase refers to the specific appellation the wine comes from. For example, a Burgundy wine might say Appellation Mâcon-Villages Contrôlée, indicating it is a wine from the Mâcon-Villages appellation. Often (depending on region) the wine will also list the region the grapes were grown, in larger type above the AOC designation. So in this case the wine would also say simply Mâcon-Villages in larger type.

The name of the grape-growing estate is usually listed above the region, in smaller type, and above that will be the name and logo of the wine producer. Both of these are usually smaller in size than the appellation. This is a clear difference from New World wines – which generally display the winery name largest. The most common mistake people make when reading a French wine label is in assuming the appellation name is actually the name of the winery.


In the upper-left corner of the label, the larger wine region will be indicated. In our example the label would read Vin du Bourgogne – meaning Wine of Burgundy. In the upper-right corner is listed the vintage of the wine.

There are a handful of terms you might see on a French wine label as well, which indicate specific qualities of the wine. Blanc indicates a white wine, while Rouge indicates a red wine. Reserve is a term used for higher-quality wines – but is an unregulated term, so unscrupulous wineries may use it for lower-quality wines as well. Grand Cru indicates that the vineyard the grapes were grown in is top-quality, and Grand Cru classé is an official classification. Premier Cru is a top-level vineyard, but below the level of Grand Cru. Grand Vin is a term wineries use to indicate what they feel is their best wine. Mis en Bouteille au Château means that the winery has bottled grapes from its own vineyard (Estate Bottled). A Château is a large wine estate, while a Domaine is a smaller wine estate. Vieilles Vignes indicates old vines – another unregulated term that can be misused. Finally, not all wines have an AOC designation – Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure are regionally-distinguished wines that are not AOC, and Vins de Pays are ‘country wines’, regulated even less.


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