EducateHow to Read a Wine Label: France 

How to Read a Wine Label: France 

Let’s be honest, we’ve all gone into Total Wine looking for a new, engaging find outside of the typical wine drinking we do. The French wine section is a beautiful array of foreign wines with fancy cursive writing and words that hardly make sense to a wine buyer who hasn’t been studying for years. When I first started learning about French wines, I was overwhelmed, to say the least. Most countries’ labeling is pretty straightforward, but in France, they label their wines based on place, not what kind of grapes are in the bottle. 

Reading a French wine label can be a bit intimidating at first, especially if you’re not familiar with French wine terminology. However, once you understand the key elements, it becomes easier to decipher. Here’s a breakdown of how to read a French wine label and some important key factors you will need to know in order to select the right wine. 

Classification Tiers (AOC/AOP, IGP, or VDP, Vin de France)

AOC or AOP (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) – This designation on a bottle of wine guarantees that the wine comes from a controlled region in France and is often a large area with specific rules such as the quality of wine, growing conditions, or minimum aging requirements. Examples of these can be Bordeaux or Burgundy and you can often find specific vineyards listed on these bottles as well. 

IGP ( Indication Geographique Protegee) – This ensures that the wine originates from an area in France but has fewer regulations than an AOP. The quality of these wines is still good, but they are less restricted so winemakers can often bend the rules a little more. 

Vin de France – This labeling term is simply saying that the wine is from France. The grape varieties will often be listed with this labeling term, and the grapes can come from anywhere in France without having specific qualifications based on region. 

Producer/ Domaine – Look for the name of the producer or domain. This is often prominently displayed on the label. The producer is typically a winery or vineyard responsible for making the wine. 

Vintage 

The Vintage year indicates the year the grapes were harvested and what year the wine was produced. In some cases, you may see “NV” (Non-Vintage) on a French wine label which just means that the grapes were from a few different years, not just one specific year. 

Grape Varietals

Some French wine labels make it very specific which grapes they use in their wine. This is common in regions such as Alsace and the Loire Valley. In many French regions, the focus is on the place rather than the grapes, but it is typical to see varieties listed as well. 

Region-Specific Information

Depending on the region, you may find additional information specific to the area. For example, in Burgundy, the label may mention a specific vineyard such as Appellation Gevrey-Chambertin.

Alcohol Content 

The alcohol by volume (ABV) percentage is usually displayed on the label, typically near the bottom. This tells you how much alcohol content is in the wine and typically ranges from 11%-15% in most wines.

Designations or Quality Levels 

Some regions have designations that indicate the quality and style of the wine. For instance, in Burgundy, you might see designations like “Grand Cru”, “Premier Cru” (Definitions below), or “Village” In Bordeaux, you may see classifications like “Cru Bourgeois” or “Classified Growth”. 

Additional Wine Terms 

On many French wines, you will see words you are not familiar with. Here is a list of other possible terms and meanings that you can expect to find on a French wine bottle depending on the region and style of wine you are buying. 

Grand Cru:  Used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the finest vineyards, translating to ‘Great Growth’

Premier Cru (1er Cru): Used in Burgundy and Champagne to identify the second-best vineyards, translating to ‘First Growth’

Sec: Describes a wine as dry, meaning it is not sweet

Demi Sec: Somewhat sweet

Sur Lie: A wine aged on lees, which are dead yeast particles, known for imparting a creamy/bready flavor and increased body. Typically associated with Muscadet wines from the Loire region

Supérieur: A regulatory term often used in Bordeaux, indicating a wine that meets higher minimum requirements for alcohol content and aging compared to the base wine

Grand Vin: In Bordeaux, it denotes a winery’s top-quality wine, often referred to as their ‘first label,’ while they may have 2nd or 3rd label wines at various price levels

Millésime: Commonly used in the Champagne region, it refers to the vintage date of the wine

Mis en Bouteille au château/domaine: The process of bottling wine at the winery

Moelleux: Indicates a sweet wine

Mousseux: Indicates a sparkling wine

Pétillant: Characterizes a lightly sparkling wine

Propriétaire: The owner of a winery

Vendangé à la main: Refers to the hand-harvesting of grapes

Vieille Vignes: Indicates that the wine is made from old vines

Vignoble: Refers to a vineyard

Vin Doux Naturel (VDN): A fortified wine produced during fermentation, often used for sweet dessert wines

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