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How to Read a French Wine Label

How to Read a French Wine Label

I am helping a few friends on some of wine projects, and they will be launching some very exciting stuff soon.  This is a short piece they asked me to write on tips for reading a French wine label, and I figured I’d share it with everyone here as well.  Enjoy.
– Andrew, Editor


Reading a French wine label is a little different than reading one from the US.  The labels are a bit more complex, but with a little practice and geographic research, you’ll soon be listing your favorite appellations in no time.

There are four key aspects to a French wine label that you will want to note: the vintage, the appellation, the classification and the chateau (or winemaker).

The vintage is pretty easy to decipher but it is vitally important.  It tells you the year the grapes were harvested in, and depending on the weather for each year, this can cause prices to swell or cave in.  Don’t be surprised if bottles from stellar years are much more expensive than bottles from years with bad conditions.

The appellation is a huge factor on the label because it ultimately tells you what grapes were used in producing the wine.  France (and many other European countries) segment their wines by appellation rather than saying simply Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is because of long standing rules in those countries about which grapes can grow where.  To understand what you are buying requires a bit of geographic knowledge on behalf of the purchaser.  For instance, a Bordeaux from St Emilion (right bank) is going to be a Merlot based red blend, compared to a Margaux (left bank) that is going to be Cabernet Sauvignon based. The more you experiment and research these different appellations within France, the more you will know about the wine inside.

The classification of the wine means a few different things throughout France.  In some areas, such as Burgundy, you will have Grand Cru wines which typically mean the wine is from the “highest” quality single vineyard, while Premier Cru means a “high” quality single vineyard, and then “Village” wines which may come from multiple vineyards. In Bordeaux you have the Classifications of 1855 that separate vineyards out into “growths.”  The “First Growth” wines are some of the most prized in the world.

The Chateau (or winemaker) is another important aspect.  As you embark on your wine journey, you will begin to encounter and recognize winemakers who make excellent wines, or (perhaps more importantly) wines that you enjoy.  Often times a second bottle (or second label, meaning the lesser wine) from a top winemaker is a better quality than a grand cru from a lesser known winemaker.

Note: If you enjoyed these quick tips, take a look at my French wine book, Decoding French Wine: A Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Fruits of the French Terroir.  It’s available in Kindle and paperback formats.  Just click on the cover below.