France has exceptional vineyards and wines, with producers touting all our favourite styles – but unlike New World wines, most bottles are labelled by region or appellation (where the wine is geographically grown), rather than grape variety. Knowing how to read a French wine label will help you understand what you are selecting.
If you’re in the mood for a smooth merlot, concentrated cabernet sauvignon or flinty chardonnay, chances are you need to swot up on your French and get to know the region.
Unlike South America or Australia, whose wine producers name the grape on the label, in France the appellation’s name is expected to tell you all you need to know about the taste and quality of the wine.
How to read a French wine label
To open up the chateau gates and help you navigate the intricacies of the language, these are the answers to the questions you should be asking…
Burgundy and Champagne are famous for their chardonnay grapes; Burgundy also produces some of the finest pinot noir in the world; Bordeaux (red) is always a blend of grapes – primarily cabernet sauvignon and merlot (along with several other grape varieties); the speciality grape of the Loire Valley is sauvignon blanc; and the Rhone Valley is a goldmine for rich, spicy syrah/shiraz.
Take the label below: Louis Jadot is the wine estate’s name. Combe Aux Jacques refers to the winery that bottles the wine. Beaujolais-Villages is the appellation south of Burgundy. The wine is made from 100% gamay grapes. How would you know that? Because in this region, gamay is the gape that’s grown to make its signature red wines.
A term used in Bordeaux, Grand Vin indicates it’s the main wine or best wine the property produces. It’s common for Bordeaux to have a first and second label at different price points.
The term Grand Cru is used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the regions’ best vineyards, and translates to ‘Great Growth’.
A notch down the scale from Grand Cru, Premier Cru translates to ‘First Growth’ and is the second best classification in Burgundy and Champagne. In each case, the label indicates the wine must contain either 100% Grand Cru or Premier Cru grapes.
Brut is a term for the sweetness level in sparkling wine. 90% of all champagne is made in a brut style and the maximum amount allowed is up to 12 grams of sugar per litre – which translates to less than a gram of sugar in your glass.
The year the grapes were harvested. When a vintage is declared on a champagne label, it’s a celebration of that particular year and generally only produced in great years when the weather has influenced the style of wine. It’s also important to check the vintage on still wine to ensure the wine is ready to drink – or has passed its drinking window.