Fancy a Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Premier Grand Cru Classé? Or how about a Brut Non-vintage Champagne which was mis en bouteille au domaine by the vigneron?
Whether you’re just dipping your toes into wine from across the pond or you feel comfortable picking out a bottle from your favourite French wine region, chances are you’ve found yourself lingering by the wine aisles and wondering exactly what all those confusing terms on the bottle mean. Here at somMailier, we’ve made it our mission to help you love French wines as much as we do. So we’ve put together this useful guide to help you read a French wine label like a pro.
1. REGIONS INSTEAD OF GRAPE VARIETIES
While in the States we’re very comfortable picking out a big bold Cabernet Sauvignon or an oaky Chardonnay, over in France producers usually label their wines based on the region instead of the grape varieties that go into the bottle.
This can be off-putting at first, but once you’ve tried a few wines from the major regions you’ll be able to figure out whether you prefer a crisp Chablis (made with Chardonnay), an elegant, earthy red Burgundy (made with Pinot Noir) or a fuller bodied red Bordeaux from the Left Bank (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon) or Right Bank (predominantly Merlot).
French wine regions basically divide into three main categories which are strictly regulated by law so consumers know exactly what they’re getting.
AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée)
This category is the most prestigious since every appellation in this category must confirm to a series of strict regulations on the way they make their wines, the grapes they use and even sometimes when they harvest their grapes. Examples of AOCs include Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne as well as a host of smaller, lesser-known appellations like Minervois, Gigondas for rich, full-bodied red wines and Muscadet for crisp whites which are well worth experimenting with.
Confusingly, these appellations often overlap geographically. For example, the appellation of Margaux AOC lies within Médoc AOC which in turn is located in the wider Bordeaux AOC. Individual villages like Margaux were given their own appellations to reflect the fact that the wines they produce are often unique and of superior quality to those found in the more generic, larger AOCs.
There are currently just over 300 of these AOC appellations for wine which constitute over a third of the total wine production in France. Interestingly, the system also applies to other French products such as Haute-Provence Lavender Essential Oil, honey from Corsica and lentils from Le Puy-en-Velay.
You should also be aware that some producers use the terms AC (Appellation Contrôlée) or AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée).
IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée)
Somewhat confusingly, this category is also sometimes referred to as Vin de Pays which translates as “country wine” since this was the term used before the introduction of IGP in 2009. Many producers have opted to use this category to produce wines which do not conform to the strict rules laid down by the AOC system so you can find some really interesting wines here.
IGP wines are often labelled with the varieties they contain, making life a little easier for consumers who are less familiar with French wine regions.
Vin de France
Again, like IGP, this category has fewer rules and regulations which gives winemakers more freedom. These wines tend to be simple, drinkable and easy on the wallet, and they’re what many French people like to drink during the week with dinner.
2. WINEMAKING TERMS
If you like your whites, you might have spotted the term sur lie on the bottle. This means that the wine has been aged on the lees or on the dead yeast cells which are left over after the fermentation process finishes. These wines often have a brioche or bready character and a rounded mouthfeel as a result of the extended contact with the yeast. A related term predominantly used for white wines is bâtonnage which refers to the method of stirring the wine while it is sitting with the lees to give additional body and complexity to the wine. More important for lovers of fine French red wines is élevé en fût de chêne which means aged in oak barrels.
Mis en bouteille au chateau/domaine is a long way of saying that the wine was estate-bottled. This is often an indicator of a good quality wine. If this doesn’t appear, it’s likely that the wine was bottled by a merchant who buys up wine from various different producers. With this approach you never know exactly what you are getting and there is little consistency from bottle to bottle. A related term is vigneron which is used to describe producers who make wine from their own grapes rather than buying them in as negociants or “merchants” do.
For rosé lovers, look out for saignée or “bleeding”. This is a method of making rosé whereby part of the juice from black grapes is bled off after a short period of contact with the dark skins. The winemaker can decide to create a deeply coloured rosé by leaving the juice with the skins for an extended period of time or a light, delicate rosé by removing the juice after just a short period of contact.
3. GRAND CRU OR PREMIER CRU
Let’s start with the word cru or “growth”. The term is often used to describe a specific vineyard or collection of vineyards and the wines produced from these vineyards. The most prestigious of these are Premier Cru (“First Growth”) which also appears on bottles as 1er Cru and Grand Cru (“Great Growth”).
The difference between these differs depending on the region in question.
For the sensible folks over in Burgundy, Grand Cru is the highest level of the region’s AOC wines. The Burgundy vineyards that have achieved this designation are those which produce the region’s very best wines and they make up just 2% of Burgundy’s vineyards by area. Premier Cru comes in next as the region’s second-highest classification.
Over in Bordeaux, things get a lot more complicated. You may want to have a glass of something at hand to help you digest this section. For the Médoc on the Left Bank and the Graves appellations the highest classification is Premier Cru or First Growth followed by Second Growth, Third Growth, and so on.
On the Right Bank of Bordeaux, in Saint Émilion, they do things a little differently. Here the most prestigious title is Premier Grand Cru Classé A followed by Premier Grand Cru Classé B. To add to the confusion, the best sweet wines of Sauternes are organised into three levels: the highest is Premier Cru Supérieur followed by Premier Cru and Deuxième Cru (Second Growth).
You will also see wines labelled as Villages such as Côtes du Rhône Villages. This simply designates a superior wine which comes from a more limited area than the generic Cotes du Rhône appellation. Above the villages level are wines with individual village names like Côtes du Rhône Villages Séguret and above these are the villages which have their own AOC classification such as AOC Cairanne.
4. LOVELY BUBBLY
One secret that the French like to keep to themselves is Crémant. This term is used for sparkling wines which do not come from the Champagne region, such as Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant de Loire. The great thing about these wines is that they usually offer incredible value for money, typically costing around half the price of a basic bottle of Champagne!
Another top tip is to look for Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle on the label. This indicates that the sparkling wine has been made using exactly the same method used for Champagne. The result is a more complex and refined bubbly since the secondary fermentation, the process which creates the bubbles, happens inside the bottle.
Sometimes only Champagne will do, though. When shopping for that special occasion bottle of bubbly there are a few crucial terms to know. Blanc de blanc simply means “white from white”, or in other words a Champagne just made from white grapes. Since the principal grapes used in Champagne are the two black grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier plus Chardonnay, these Champagnes are almost always 100% Chardonnay.
You can probably now guess what Blanc de noir means. “White from black” is the literal translation, indicating that the white sparkling wine in your glass is actually made from black grape varieties Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
If you prefer drier sparkling wines, look out for Brut or Extra Brut which contain very little residual sugar. If you’re picking something with more sweetness, perhaps to stand up to dessert, go for Demi Sec or the even sweeter Doux.
Many Champagnes, especially those with more modest price tags, are Non-vintage. This simply means that the grapes used to make the wine come from several different vintages. This is common practice in Champagne since the variable weather conditions can make it difficult for producers to maintain a consistent style year to year. Vintage Champagnes are usually only produced three to four times a decade when the weather conditions and quality of the grapes are especially good.
Has this whetted your appetite to learn more about French wine? We’re here to help! Why not check out our French wine club. Every three months we send direct to your door three or six bottles of boutique French wines which have been carefully selected by wine experts in France along with detailed information about each wine and food pairing ideas to help you really discover French wine. And as if that wasn’t enough, we also have a wine club gift option for that special wine lover in your life!