Whether you are a seasoned wine expert or a wine rookie, the truth of the matter is that selecting a bottle of good French wine can be difficult. This is often the case for all non domestic produced wines but in this report we would like to focus specifically on decoding French wine labels. French wines make up for over 50% of the Red Wine Lovers cellar and the reason being: they are simply fantastic. Today we will educate you on how to properly sift through the shelves of your wine shop by looking for key terms on a label. Once you have developed an understanding for this terminology we not only ensure a more pleasurable shopping experience when purchasing French wine, but a heightened confidence of wine wisdom.
When people see fancy words such as, “Chateau, Domaine, Margaux or Medoc” they may automatically associate the wine with being expensive because they are intimidated by unfamiliar words. Understanding the differences between types of French regions versus types of French grapes is vital to the wine selection process. Below you will find key words and phrases which, when fully processed, will be the determining factor between purchasing a phenomenal bottle of an $18 Bordeaux rather than dishing out $80 on a mediocre bottle. The information below is designed to help ordinary wine lovers understand the complexities of French wine labeling, and obtain the best value for their money.
Common Words Found on French Wine Labels-
A French wine label contains a lot of information, but you can crack the code and understand French wine once you know how to read the label. Here are some words you may find and what they mean:
|Appellation . . . Contrôlée (AOC): The word(s) appearing between these two words on the label indicate the official place-name of the wine, the location where the grapes growChateau: A wine estateCrémant: An AOC sparkling French wine from some region other than ChampagneCru: A vineyard, a village, or sometimes a wine estateCuvée: A blend of wines, or a particular batch of a wine
Domaine: Wine estate, usually a smaller property than a château
Grand cru Classé: A wine estate that has officially been classified as a top property
Grand Cru: A region’s highest quality vineyard or vineyard area
Grand Vin: A winery’s best wine
Millésime: Vintage (year of the harvest)
Mis en Bouteille au Château: Estate-bottled
Premier Cru: A top vineyard area or wine estate, but less prestigious than a Grand Cru
Vieilles Vignes: Old vines (suggests better quality)
Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS): A place-name wine that’s less prestigious than an Appellation . . . Contrôlée wine
Vin de Pays: A French country wine; the words following this phrase on the label indicate the zone where the grapes grew
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOC / AOP):
The European AOP classification is in the process of replacing the old French AOC classification, following a European ruling in 2009. The terms are most frequently used in the classification of wines, but more recently have been extended to act as a label of quality and authenticity for certain regional and local specialties. On the label of a wine bottle, the words Appellation contrôlée or Appellation protégée generally indicate that the wine is of good quality, and has come from a specific region. However, wines that come with the Appellation label can vary in quality, depending on the appellation. At the lower end of the scale come the large regional appellations, such as Bordeaux, Bourgogne or Côtes du Rhône. Within each main region however there are other more specific and higher quality appellations, either from smaller areas, such as Médoc, Côte Rôtie and Côtes de Beaune. Very small local districts, generally recognized as producing the best wines in the region such as Pernand-Vergelesses, (a village in the Burgundian vineyards). Pauillac (in the Médoc) is home to some of the very top Bordeaux wines.
VDQS, or Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure : This is the second highest qualification for French wines, below Appellation Contrôlée. It accounts for about 2% of all French wines. Like Appellation Contrôlée wines, VDQS wines are grown in geographically delimited areas, and the methods that can be used as well as the volumes that can be produced are controlled. While many VDQS wines are of medium quality, others can be really quite good, particularly those grown in regions that are trying hard to obtain an “appellation contrôlée” label. For example, in 2010, the “Côtes d’Auvergne” VDQS area qualified for AOC status from the 2011 vintage onwards. The VDQS label is scheduled to disappear in the framework of the EU reorganization of geographic based quality labels, and a number of former VDQS wines have now become AOP wines.
Vin de Pays: This category accounts for some 15% of French wine production and covers wines that come from a designated area. In short, they are the top end of the scale for everyday drinking wines. In some cases they are produced from individual grape varieties, in others from a blend of grapes grown locally. Some vineyards and cooperatives that are not in an AOC area put all their expertise and skill into producing top quality Vins de Pays, with the result that now makes it possible to find some extremely good value wines.
Vin de table: Ordinary everyday table wine, also known as “vin ordinaire”.
If you are looking to get the most for your money search for these top value French wines: Beaujolais- Villages, Bergerac, Cahors, Bourgogne, Chinon, Corbieres, Cote Chalonnaise Burgundy, Cote de Bourg Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône-Villages and Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux
WHAT TO BUY:
Generally speaking, if you have two bottles of wine at the same price, choose the one with the lesser-known or less-prestigious label. For instance, $14 may get you something at the cheap end of the more famous names (so probably a poor quality wine), but at the top end of the lesser known vineyards. If a bottle of Vin de Pays costs $14, it should be really good (otherwise there is no way they could sell it at that price) – but if you were to find a Grand Cru Bordeaux for this price (and it can happen), then it obviously is of sub-par caliber. Within given AOC areas, go for the smaller and therefore lesser known estates or appellations. For example, in the Côtes du Rhône area, you will normally get better value for money with a Lirac (situated on the western banks of the river) than with its neighboring but much more prestigious wine, Chateauneuf du Pape (on the eastern banks of the river). With Clarets (wines from the Bordeaux area), you can often get really good quality wines at reasonable prices if you look for “Cru Bourgeois” labels. But remember, vintages vary considerably, so a cheap “Cru Bourgeois” may indicate a poor year. The areas covered by “appellation contrôlée” labels also frequently include vineyards that produce wines of different qualities. There are “Margaux” wines with “Premier Grand Cru” status, but other “Margaux” wines with no more than the appellation. The latter will probably be of good quality, indeed they may even be excellent, and if they are, will cost considerably less than their more illustrious namesakes; However, there is no guarantee, particularly if they are still young. Excellent value can also be found with good vins de pays. Look out for vintage vins de pays that are being sold for twice the price of other vins de pays, or even a bit more. They will still be relatively inexpensive, but you may well find yourself with a wine that outclasses most of the ordinary AOC wines being sold at the same price.
Furthermore, it is important to note the value behind taking the time to select a lovely bottle of French wine; The vast range of versatility when it comes to food pairings is endless. For example, Bordeaux is excellent with beef, lamb, grilled veal, game such as pheasant and poultry such as grilled turkey. This wine pairs well with food made with red wine and rich sauces. Other good accompaniments are: couscous, tandoori spices, pâts, bean dishes and stews.Burgundy red wines (of the pinot noir grape variety) are excellent with beef, roasted turkey, game such as pheasant, pork roasts and delicate cheeses. They also pair excellently with rich fish such as: tuna, salmon and mackerel. Poultry, lamb, veal, spices, fresh herbs, and recipe’s using mushrooms also make wonderful pairings. –RMH
We hope to have eased some of the confusion behind understanding French wine labels and encourage you to share this information with family and friends. France is the leading wine producer in the world and the wines of the region should not only be enjoyed, but also understood. With that being said, we are off to the market on a quest for our next great bottle!