Read a label on a bottle is the first step in the quest to find the best wine. However, it is sometimes hard to understand all the words written on it, especially if they come from France. In fact, informations displayed on labels differ from a region to another… Tricky! But that’s fine, I will explain how to decipher labels, and you will be able to find the greatest bottles!
First, the general informations. You will find after the specificities of each region.
1. REGION (Area)
First, you will have to identify the region where the wine comes from. It won’t tell you if the wine is great or not, but it will give you some hints about what kind of flavors you can expect: tannins, fruits, light, strong,… Because soil is not the same everywhere, each region has its own characteristics. In French, these different areas are called ‘climats’.
2. APPELLATION (Certification)
It is usually written at the bottom of the label. Usually, that’s the first hint for your great wine quest. ‘Appellation’ is an AOC (or PDO: Protected Designation of Origin), a certification controlled by the country. Wineries that produce such wines have to respect a long list of specifications. However, the winemakers’ work quality is still to determine.
3. MILLESIME (Vintage)
The vintage is the year the grapes in this bottle have been harvested. A vintage value is estimated according the weather that the vines had to surrender. If the weather has been bad (frost,…), the quality of the wine may be lower than usual. However, and once again, the winemakers’ work can create miracles!
In each regions, there is a ranking that allows you to identify which parcel the vines grew. The ranking is specific to each region. In Bourgogne and Alsace, the ranking has a real meaning and is truly helpful. However, the ranking for Bordeaux wines has not be updated since 1855 and is unclear. So be careful!
5. DOMAINE NAME
Usually, a wine has the name of the Domaine where it has been produced. It can be the name of the winemaker, or the owner of the vines. Each winemaker has his own vision and savoir-faire. That’s why two wines for the same area but various Domaines can be so different. Thanks to his savoir-faire, a winemaker can create his reputation year after year.
The name of the ‘cuvée’ distinguishes different wines from the same producer. A winemaker has several wines, coming from several parcels or even from different appellations. In order to identify quickly the bottle, the winemakers give specific names. It can also be a way to enlighten a kind of wine like a ‘cuvée spéciale’, or indicate the kind of grapes used.
As said before, all regions have their own specificities. Here are a few examples.
‘Château’ : in Bordeaux, wines don’t come from a Domaine but from Châteaux (castles).
‘Grand Cru Classé’ :it is a popular ranking in Bordeaux. It has nothing to do with the area of the vines, as it relies on old parameters that were established in 1855. There are several types of rankings according to the different wines: Sauternes, Barsac, Graves, Saint-Emilion… It is actually not clear, even for amateurs, so be careful with these.
‘Village’, ‘Premier Cru’, ‘Grand Cru’ : these words refers to the quality of the wine based on the location of the vineyard. ‘Village’ refers to a parcel at the bottom of a hill, which is usually not the best place to receive the sunlight. ‘Premier Cru’ refers to a parcel that has a nice exposure, usually in the middle of a hill. ‘Grand Cru’ refers to the nicest area, usually at the top of a hill, with an amazing exposure to the sunlight. If most of the AOC have ‘Villages’ and ‘Premier Cru’, not all have ‘Premier Crus’.
‘Monopole’ : it means that the area the wine comes from has only one owner.
‘Clos’ : ‘clos’ are small parcels marked out by stones walls. It is usually specific vines that give nice wine.
In France, on the contrary of the rest of the world, the name of the grape variety is not written on the front label. The AOC is enough to understand which grape variety has been used. However, in Alsace is an exception. There are only two appellations for white wines: Alsace AOP, and Alsace Grand Cru AOP (refers to the best parcels, with a ranking similar to Bourgogne). Since there is no appellation otherwise, winemakers chose to write the grape name on the front label. To be able to write a grape name, the wine must include at least 85% of grapes from this variety.
Note: Some wines can also have medals displayed on the bottle. Be careful as all contests are not valuable.
Back label gives a lot of information about the bottle. You can find ideas for food/wine pairings, informations about the appellation or the Domaine, descriptions of the types of vinification or viticulture (the practices in the vineyards), instructions for conservation…
Some back label will only contain legal mentions while others will be extremely complete. It depends on the producer. Please note that some back labels have to be changed before export, so you may find different informations according to the country you buy the wine.
People tend to prefer ‘traditional’ labels as they are synonymous of good quality. However, young winemakers try to differentiate their wines with creative labels. Of course, the best way to find out if a wine is good or not, will be to actually taste it!