How to read the label on a bottle of French wine

Petrus - how to read a French wine label

We’ve all been there at some point in our lives, stood in a shop with a bottle of wine in hand,, trying to make sense of everything that is written on the label. To help you decipher the quality-related terms and marketing wording, we’re going to take you through the wine-specific jargon that can be found on labels. 

How can you judge the quality of a wine by its label? Knowing properties and winemakers helps but you can use the other information on the label to give you a rough idea.

The terms

1. Grand Vin + AOC: Every producer can write “Grand Vin” on their bottle when the wines are made in an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). It, therefore, doesn’t really say much about the quality of a wine. In the case of Bordeaux châteaux that produce several different wines, they may use “Grand Vin” to denote their flagship bottle and to differentiate it from the others they craft.

2. Château: The name of the château is mandatory because it makes it clear that a wine was bottled at the château (“mis en bouteille au château” in French). Having said that, the name can be omitted when the winegrower is mentioned. When judging the quality of the wine, the name of the producer as well as the appellation and vintage are the most important pieces of information.

3. Grand Cru classé: Mentioning this is completely voluntary. However, it can give you an idea about the quality of the wine if the classification is thorough. In Bordeaux, the classifications with the highest quality are:
–  The 1855 classification: This is a scale going from premier cru classé (first growth) to cinquième cru classé (fifth growth). It ranks red Médoc wines as well as Haut-Brion. It has never been revised (except for Cantemerle which was added to the initial list in 1855 and Mouton Rothschild which was promoted to premier cru classé in 1973).
– The Sauternes and Barsac 1855 classification: This ranks producers as premier grand cru classé and second grand cru classé as well as one premier cru supérieur (Château d’Yquem).
– The Graves classification: There is only one rank here but it concerns both red and white wines. A château can be classified for their red or white wines or for both.
– The Saint-Emilion classification: This classes properties as either premier cru classé A or premier cru classé B and the rankings are revised every 10 years (the most recent one being in 2022).

Please see below for the Burgundy and Alsace classifications

4. The appellation (mandatory): It is essential to mention this. It means that 100% of the grapes came from within the appellation and the winemaker has respected the specific requirements (yields, grape varieties, etc.). This is one of the most important pieces of information of the label, but it doesn’t always mean that the wine will be up to scratch. We all have an experience of tasting a wine from one of the great appellations only for it to be subpar.

5. The vintage: Seeing a year on the label means that 85% of the grapes used were harvested in that year. It’s not something that has to appear on a bottle because not all wines (Champagnes, for example) meet this percentage of grapes. However, when a vintage is written on the label, it’s a vital element.

6. La mise en bouteille (where the wine is bottled – mandatory) : This is compulsory to mention because of French winemaking history. In Bordeaux, bottling wines at the property represented a shift in the balance of power away from the wine merchants to the châteaux. Today, the majority of châteaux use this phrase as standard. In Burgundy, however, this information has its own signification (see below).

Burgundy’s classifications

1 & 2 – The name of the village probably followed by the classification: This is truly specific to Burgundy. The hierarchy of the appellations from top to bottom are: regional appellations (like Bourgogne or Bourgogne Aligoté), village appellations, premier crus (sometimes written as 1er cru) and grand crus. This information gives a good idea about the quality of the wine from a producer. There are always exceptions, but a grand cru will generally be more complex and better adapted to ageing than a wine from a wine from a village appellation.

3 & 4 –  The name of the location, called a “climat” in Burgundy: In the example above, Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot is classed as a classé premier cru. And the word “Monopole” means that this specific climat is only owned by one producer. When the label concerns a premier cru like this one, you will see the name of the village as well as 1er cru and the classified climat.

Alsace’s classifications

A domain can print the name of the grape variety on the label. This is not something that is typically done in the rest of France where writing the name of the appellation is favoured.

Alsace is the main exception to this rule and there are only two appellations for white wines, which are Alsace AOP and Alsace Grand Cru AOP (these are high quality plots which are classified using the same system as in Burgundy). When producers state only one grape variety on the bottle, the wine has to be made from at least 85% of  the variety mentioned on the label.

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