Bartenders Guide: Deciphering French Wine Labels

"When the French get snotty about their wine, I politely remind them that without Americans, they'd be discussing their troubles over a crisp German beer." - Frost

It actually is true that Grape Phylloxera (a type of aphid) almost completely wiped out French and other European vineyards in the late 1800's. By grafting vines onto resistant North American rootstocks, the industry was saved. On the other hand, American rootstocks were resistant because we're the ones that kinda spread the plague to them in the first place...go figure.

To understand French wine labels you must first begin with an understanding of the French wine term "Terroir" (pronounced "tair-whar", with that roll of the tongue on the first "r").

Terroir is the interaction of soil, topography and climate that give wine grapes a unique character. In layman's terms, it means, "if you grow the exact same grape anywhere else, it's going to taste different". Some people view this as indisputable truth, some view it as a cheap attempt to monopolize wine by intimating that everyone else's isn't as good. Personally, while I find it very true that different conditions will yield different results from the same type of grape, I don't think anyone has the "only" ideal climate for a grape. It all depends on the winemaker's final vision of his or her wine.

Years ago when labeling was unregulated and unscrupulous producers would often claim their wine came from a more prestigious region, producers of quality wines created the system called the Appellation d'origine Contrôlée, or AOC. This was based on the idea that certain grapes should only be grown in certain regions, and a wine producer must grow only those grapes allowed in his or her AOC region to produce AOC wines.

This was intended to give the wine consumer a type of quality assurance. In time, AOC regions added additional criteria governing production such as allowable grape yields per acre, what kind of grapes may be blended together, how vineyards are irrigated, etc.

This is one of the chief differences in American and European wine labeling. American (and other New World wines) often label by varietal grape; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and so forth. European wines are more often labeled by growing region, as this usually defines both the climate and the type of grapes allowed to be grown there. When a French winemaker labels by grape varietal, it is usually because it does not meet AOC standards. This does not mean it's bad wine...he or she may have simply decided to grow a type of grape or blend a style of wine not "allowed" in a particular region.

This type of labeling assumes that you, the consumer, are familiar with the region and the type of grapes allowed to be produced there. More often than not, you know as much about the hundreds of French wine appellations as the French know about the simple joys of Cheez, until you have a basic understanding of the main French growing regions, my advice is to cheat and bring a book with you to the wine shop. There is no dishonor in admitting your own ignorance, only in denying it. Fine French wine is entirely worth the effort, even if it means putting up with the French.

On a more recent note, UFC Que Choisir, a French consumer advocacy group similar to our Consumer Reports, has reported that due to increasing pressure from New World wines, AOC awards have been dubious at best, sometimes granting up to 99% of all applicants an AOC designation. This has sadly rendered the AOC label almost meaningless, since a third or more of the wines carrying it may not actually be legitimately produced under its guidelines.

Your best bet? Respected, independent wine reviews and above all, your own palate.

French Wine Label

1. Winemaker or Winery: The company or firm that made the wine or the wine's trademark name, in the case of a proprietary blend.

2. Vintage: This is the year in which the grapes were harvested, not the year in which the wine was bottled, which for some wines may be years later. Most national wine laws require that at least 85 percent of the wine be harvested in the year of vintage; up to 15 percent may be blended in from other years.

3. Appellation: The region where the grapes for this wine were grown, in this case Chateauneuf du Pape. Labeling by region is not unique to French wine. In most countries, wine-growing regions are defined by a governing body similar to France's AOC. In Italy, it's the "Denominazione di origine controllata" (DOC)". Most regulations allow up to 15 percent of the wine to be made from grapes grown outside the area.

4. Tells us that it was produced under the AOC regulations for the region of Chateauneuf du Pape.

5. The Alcohol By Volume, or ABV: This is the percentage of alcohol in the wine, and spirits (liquors too) produced in Europe are labeled in this fashion. As a general rule, a higher alcohol content indicates a Superior or Reserve wine, but remember that a higher alchohol content can also give a very "hot" mouth-feel. How to convert to good old American Proof? Just double it. A wine that is 12% ABV, is 24 Proof.

6. The producer's address: "Vigneron" means winegrower.

7. & 8. list two important things: Where the grapes were grown and where the wine was bottled. "Domaine" refers to a specific piece of land, usually in Burgundy. In this case, the Domaine du Banneret. Let's talk about this a moment.

Mis en Bouteille (mee zahn boo-TEH-yuh)

A French phrase meaning "bottled." Mis en Bouteille au Domaine (or Mis au Domaine) means "bottled at the estate"; Mis en Bouteille au Château (or Mis du Château) means "bottled at the château". Mis en Bouteille a la Propriete ("bottled at the property") and Mis par le Propriétaire ("bottled by the proprietor") have the same meaning as estate bottled.

Mis en Bouteille dans nos Caves and Mis en Bouteille dans nos Chais mean "bottled in our cellars", and usually suggest that the grapes were grown elsewhere and that the wine is not the quality of one that is estate bottled. This doesn't mean it isn't good, just that it's not necessarily top-notch.

9. The size of the bottle, in case you couldn't figure that out.

A quick glossary to other terms you are likely to see on a French wine label:

Blanc : white
Brut : dry (usually sparkling wine)
Cave : cellar (often underground) or winemaking establishment
Cave Co-operative : winemaker's co-operative
Cépage : grape variety
Chai : warehouse for storing wine, usually in barrels, above ground
Châteaux estate : It may or may not have a manor house
Clos : walled vineyard (walls might have been lost in time)
Côte : hillside
Coteaux : hillsides
Cru : growth, usually high quality vineyard or district
Cru Classé : classified vineyard, usually in Bordeaux
Cuve : vat or tank
Cuvée : blend (has a special meaning in champagne)
Demi-sec : medium dry
Départment : French political region, a bit like an English county
Domaine : estate
Doux : sweet
Eau-de-vie : spirit, usually referring to the double distilled wines that are the basis of cognac
Grand vin de ____ : "great wine of ____", but just a marketing term
Manipulant : grape grower who also makes wines from those grapes, especially champagne
Mis en bouteille : bottled
Mis en bouteille au château : château bottled
Raisin : grape
Rouge : red
Sec : dry
Supérieur : indicated extra 0.5% or 1% ABV
Vignoble : vineyard
Vin : wine