#SommNextDoor: How To Read A French Wine Label
This is our new weekly editorial that answers questions from our community by our resident girl-next-door who happens to be a certified level 2 Sommelier Alex Sanchez. Send us your questions! Twitter, Facebook, or email [email protected]
French wines can be intimidating. If for no other reason than the label itself! Lots of fancy words, italic loopy letters, and they don’t even say the name of the grape! Don’t trip. If you can identify the region and classification (i.e. quality level) you’re already home! Region is necessary to identify because French wines don’t normally include the name of the grape on the label, they only specify the region, assuming the consumer knows which grapes are grown where. Below is a simple chart of regions and the most popular grapes from that region:
Classification is important because it tells us what quality level to expect of the wine. France’s classification system is made up of 3 quality levels with AOC being of the highest quality level and Vin de France being the lowest quality. When surveying the shelves of your local wine shop, go for a bottle that has AOC to ensure that you’ll be purchasing the most controlled and truest expression of that region. If you are just starting to drink French wines and are still figuring out what you like, buy AOC wines. It’s the most classic examples of their region. Below are the 3 classifications for French wine:
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlee / Protégée (AOC/AOP)
AOC wines must adhere to the strictest regulations to assure France’s appellation authenticity and style. Only Vitis vinifera grapes (i.e. grapes grown for wine, no grapes for grocery stores, only the good stuff) may be used for production, and all grapes must be exclusively sourced from and wine produced in the stated geographical area. These wines must also pass a tasting panel.
Vin de Pays/Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP)
29% of French wine is released under the Vin de Pays classification, a less restrictive category of widely varying quality. Minimum 85% of the grapes must be sourced from the stated geographical area.
Vin de France (Table Wine)
The lowest quality of French production and can really be anything as long as it is made in France.
Here are some common French Wine Label terms and what they mean:
Clos: walled vineyard, commonly used in Burgundy
Côtes: wines from a slope or hillside (contiguous)–usually along a river (e.g. Côtes du Rhône “slopes of the Rhône river”)
Cru: “growth”, indicates a vineyard or group of vineyards typically recognized for quality
Domaine: a winery estate with vineyards
Grand Cru: “Great Growth”, used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s best vineyards.
Grand Vin: used in Bordeaux to indicate a winery’s “first label” or best wine they produce. It’s common for Bordeaux wineries to have a second or third label at varying price points.
Mis en bouteille au château/domaine: bottled at the winery
Premiere Cru (1er Cru): “First Growth”, used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s second best vineyards.
Vieille Vignes: old vines
Now go explore some French wine! Here are a few that I like that are easy to get into:
Louis Jadot Beaujolais: Gamay grape; flavors of cherry, strawberry, raspberry, rose
Christian Salmon Sancerre Vielles Vignes: Sauvignon Blanc grape; flavors of citrus, green apple, chalk, white flowers
Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Villages: 60% Grenache grape, 40% Syrah grape; flavors of red licorice, red currant, stewed cherries