You’re strolling through your favorite wine shop, comfortably perusing the domestic section. You turn the corner, and the French wine aisle presents itself. Intrigued, you venture in, where a bottle catches your eye. Frustrated by the foreign language and deterred by no mention of anything you recognize (Cabernet? Merlot? Hello?) your insecurity quickly leads you back to familiar territory.
Does this situation sound familiar? Here are some tips on how to decipher a French wine label and purchase French wine confidently.
Unlike wine labeling in the United States, labeling laws in France are incredibly strict, providing the consumer with a label packed full of pertinent information. The main thing to remember is that almost always, French wines are labeled by region, not by grape variety. You will most commonly find broad, regional classifications, such as "Bordeaux Supérieur" or "Côtes du Rhône," which is why understanding France's specific wine regions is key. We will get to those in a moment, but first, here are a few general aspects of all French wine labels, referencing the above photo.
French Wine Label Basics:
3. Appellation title or "sub-region"
4. Region and style
5. Translates as "bottled at the estate"
6. Alcohol content
7. Winery address
Now that we have covered the basics, let's highlight six of France's most prominent wine regions, the grapes grown there, and the styles of wine produced, along with specific regional phraseology. Now go and pour yourself a glass of something Frenchy and settle in.
Here is a good example of French regional labeling. Without knowing that the Pomerol sub-region of Bordeaux is planted primarily with Merlot, we wouldn't know the varietals in this bottle.
Located in the southwest corner of France, this region's bold red blends, based around Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are the benchmarks by which all other wines of this style are compared. Although there are dry and sweet white wines made primarily of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, this is predominately a red wine region.
- Primary Red Grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere
- General Style - full-bodied, dry, earthy red wines
The region is divided by the Gironde Estuary. The regions to the West, or "Left Bank," of the river produce wines based upon Cabernet Sauvignon, while the regions to the East, or "Right Bank," of the river produce wines based primarily on Merlot.
- Major Left Bank Regions - Médoc, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Margaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
- Major Right Bank Regions - Pomerol, St. Émilion
This Champagne, without a vintage date, is a good example of a non-vintage style. This "multiple vintage" blend is crafted for consistency year after year.
Located in the far north of France, this region is the epicenter of the world's sparkling wine production. While most of these wines are blended from multiple vintages (designated as "non-vintage" or "NV"), during exceptional years, vintage dated Champagne is sometimes produced.
- Primary Grapes - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Munier
- General Style - fully sparkling wines with high acidity
Most Champagne is a blend of these three grapes; however, three other specific styles are commonly seen.
- Blanc de Blancs - sparkling white wine made from 100% Chardonnay
- Blanc de Noirs - sparkling white wine made from either Pinot variety
- Rosé - sparkling pink wine blended from red and white grapes
While Champagne is most commonly a dry wine, there are varying levels of sweetness available. From driest to sweetest: Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec, Doux.
Produced by Jacques Girardin, this Pinot Noir is sourced from the Les Peuillets vineyard within the Savigny-Les-Beaune sub-region of Burgundy. The designate of "1er Cru" translates as Premier Cru.
Located far inland near the eastern border of France, Burgundy is the one region equally famous for both its reds and whites. Comprised of dozens of small villages and vineyards that were sectioned off by the Cistercian monks hundreds of years ago, Burgundy is the most intricate vineyard land in the world.
- Primary Grapes - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay
- General Style - elegant, light-bodied, dry reds and expressions of Chardonnay that range from steely and crisp to richly oaked.
There are five main sub-regions of Burgundy, each with its own distinct style. From North to South:
- Chablis - crisp, generally un-oaked Chardonnay
- Côte d'Or - further subdivided into two regions, the Côte de Nuits in the North (primarily Pinot Noir) and the Côte de Beaune in the South (primarily Chardonnay). This is where most of Burgundy's top vineyards or grand crus are located.
- Côte Chalonnaise - high quality reds and whites
- Maconnais - good quality Chardonnay, most famously from Pouilly-Fuissé
- Beaujolais - focused on the Gamay grape
Nowhere else in the world are single parcels and vineyards so prized as in Burgundy. The two highest levels of quality in Burgundy are based solely around single vineyard wines, emphasizing the distinct characteristics of that particular place.
- Grand Cru - the 33 most famous single vineyards in Burgundy
- Premier Cru (or 1er Cru) - over 500 single vineyards of exceptional quality
- Village Wine - wines made from grapes surrounding a single village, where the village is actually the name of the wine (examples: Pommard, Mercurey, Rouilly, Volnay)
- Bourgogne - wines made from any grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy
Alsace is the one region that consistently (and thankfully!) varietally labels its wines. This Pinot Gris is sourced from Emile Beyer's "Lieu Dit Hohrain" vineyard.
Located in the far northeast corner of France, bordering Germany, this region has a long history of Germanic influence with respect to grape varietals, while the winemaking reflects a distinctively French influence. These are the easiest labels within France to understand: they are mostly labeled by grape varietal.
- Primary Grapes - Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Muscat
- General Style - crisp, dry whites, with some delicious dessert wines
Alsace also utilizes a "grand cru" designation with over 50 of its top vineyards classified as such. Although most of the wines produced here are crisp, un-oaked whites, there are two tiers of high quality dessert wine, as well: Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.
The red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are blends of up to 13 different varietals. The bottles of this region are easily identifiable: the glass is embossed with the papal coat of arms.
Located in the southeast corner of France, the Rhône River flows through some of the country's most diverse vineyard land on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. This is a region of extremes, from the searing hot regions in the Southern Rhône to the frigid windswept mountains of the Northern Rhône.
- Primary Grapes - Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier
- General Style - wild, gamey reds; rich, aromatic whites; and bone-dry rosés
The Rhône Valley is a tapestry of sub-regions, each with its own specific style and blending requirements. With a scorching climate, the sub-regions of the Southern Rhône are based around blending the grapes, Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre (GSM). The cooler temperatures of the Northern Rhône allow for single varietal wines of great purity, primarily Syrah for red and Viognier for white.
- Major N. Rhône Regions - Hermitage, Cornas, Cote Rotie, Condrieu
- Major S. Rhône Regions - Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras
- Major Rosé-producing Regions - Tavel, Provence
Not to be confused with the Chardonnays from the Pouilly-Fuissé region of Burgundy, Pouilly-Fumé is made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
Located in the heart of France, the Loire is the country's longest river. Draining from the Central Massif mountain range, the Loire river runs steadily west, passing through over fifty sub-regions on its way to the Atlantic. This is the most difficult region in France to learn, as virtually every possible style of wine is made here.
- Primary Grapes - Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne
- General Style - racy, herbaceous, mineral-driven reds and whites, as well as a large quantity of sparkling, sweet, and rosé wines
Similar to the Rhône region, the Loire is comprised of many sub-regions, each focusing on specific grapes and styles.
- Dry, crisp Sauvignon Blanc - Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé
- Wild, savory Cabernet Franc - Chinon, Bourgueil
- Fruity, dry rosés and high quality sparkling wines - Anjou-Saumur
- Rich, yeasty Melon de Bourgogne - Muscadet
- Dramatic Chenin Blanc, from sweet to dry - Savennieres, Vouvray
Common Words to Know on a French Wine Label
- Cru - translates as "growth," a favorable vineyard
- Vielles Vignes - old vines
- Château or Domaine - wine estate
- Appellation d'Origine Protegée - AOP, highest tier of French wine
- Indication Géographique Protégée - IGP, Regional French wines, middle tier of French wine
- Vin de France - French table wines, lowest tier of French wine
- Crémant - sparkling wine not from the Champagne region
- Blanc - white
- Rouge - red
- Millésime or Récolte - vintage or harvest date
- Cuvée - house blend
- Réserve - implies a higher quality, but an unregulated term
- Clos - translates as "an enclosure," usually an enclosed vineyard
(Image credits: Jayme Henderson)