Our guide to navigating French Wine Labels

Welcome to the horrifying world of French wine classifications! French wine labels almost never have grape varieties on them, words that are supposed to distinguish quality are only sometimes classified, classifications don’t always correspond to deliciousness for money, and each region has its own rules. Delightful! Our wine expert Caroline Conner helps you to read French wine labels.

 

The Essential Theory Behind French Wine Labels

French wine is labelled according to protected classifications. Wine is classified by where it comes from geographically. Because France, with each classification come rules and a lot of paperwork.

Grape variety, farming, harvest, winemaking, ageing, bottling, and release are all things that are regulated. It’s boring stuff.

French wine label from Bordeaux

A Bordeaux wine label.

 

 

The point of all this is to make sure the wine is representative of where it comes from.

This sense of place is encapsulated by a word, terroir, which means the environment that the grapes came from. Not just the soil, as it’s often used to describe, but the wind, the shade, the angle of the sun.

For the average person, what you need to worry about memorizing are just grape varieties and general wine style, because information like that is very rarely going to be on the label. Why would they make it that easy?

 

The Wine Appellation System in France for beginners

An easy way to think about this is like a pyramid.

  • You have Vin de France at the base, that means wine that can come from anywhere in France, and will usually have the grape variety on it, yay!
  • Next is IGP, or Indication Géographique Protégée. This is a broad regional indicator, and will also have the grape on it. Double yay! These are going to be the cheapest wines to buy. Does that mean they suck? No. It can, but it can also mean that for whatever reason, the winery isn’t making a wine that follows the rules to qualify for the next level up. This is often the choice of young, hip winemakers who want to experiment, or the result of someone having vines on the wrong side of the fence.
  • After VdF and IGP we get to AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. This is where we’re getting into regions, and then sub-regions, communes, and village names as the pyramid tapers. This is where you start to get words like “Cru” in some regions.
French Wine classification

French Wine classification

Again, each region has its own versions of this pyramid, so you can’t ever make assumptions. For example, in Bordeaux, there are 5 tiers of Grand Cru! In English you’ll hear them referred to as 1st-5th “Growth”.

This doesn’t even apply to all of Bordeaux, just one part of it! And it’s attached to the winery itself, not just the land like in other parts of France! AHH!

In Lyon it’s Beaujolais and Coteaux du Lyonnais

Right? It’s challenging! So the Bordeaux example is a nightmare and let’s forget about that because we are in Lyon.

If you’re in Lyon you’ve basically taken a sacred oath to only consume wines that are local and localish.

How to discover French Wine labels

That means Beaujolais, Bourgogne/Burgundy, Coteaux du Lyonnais, and Rhône. We can make room for the Savoie, Bugey, Provence, Ardèche, Languedoc, and Jura, but we sure as hell aren’t drinking Bordeaux.

For all of these regions, it’s pretty straightforward. Place is the name of the game, only Burgundy has Grand or Premier Crus, which correspond to the top vineyards.

Burgundy is almost never good value, Beaujolais almost always is. Rhône can be a bit of both.

So you might have to memorize a map of French wine regions and all their corresponding grapes.

Good luck! When in doubt, trust the person who works at your local independent wine shop!

For more information on different regions, check out Caroline Conner’s most recent blog post.

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