French wine: 10 tips for successfully understanding the label on the bottle

A wine bottle’s label is its first – and possibly only – opportunity to say ‘drink me’, but French wine labels are some of the world’s most complicated and tightly regulated. Wine expert Dominic Rippon passes on his top 10 tips for deciphering descriptions on French wine bottles

1 Appellation

The words appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) are intended to distinguish a wine at the top of the French quality hierarchy. Rules govern the percentages of permitted grape varieties in blends, vine yields, ageing requirements and, most importantly, where the grapes are grown. An appellation can be for an entire region, a smaller sub zone or a single village; for example, Bordeaux, Haut-Médoc and Pauillac; as a rule, the smaller the appellation area, the stricter the rules. In Burgundy, Grand Cru wines come from single vineyards, each of which has its own appellation.

However, just as appellation status does not guarantee vinous excellence, a wine labelled indication géographique protégée (IGP) may well be outstanding, even though its grapes can come from a larger geographic area. The rules governing the production of IGP wines are also more relaxed than for AOPs, but this in turn allows more scope for invention. A winemaker in the Limoux area of Languedoc, for example, might decide that his terroir is better suited to pinot noir for his reds than it is to the grape varieties permitted by appellation regulations (merlot, cabernet, grenache, syrah, malbec and carignan), and therefore produce his wine as IGP Pays d’Oc instead of AOP Limoux.

Vin de France replaced what was called vin de table before 2010: a simple designation for wines sourced from anywhere in France. It tends to be reserved for large-volume, pan-French blends, but is also used by firebrand growers, such as Jean-Paul Luc at the Villa Minna vineyard in Provence, who prefer to be free from bureaucratic constraints and received wisdom.

2 Grape variety

The idea that grape variety is subordinate to terroir is deeply engrained in French wine culture, so grape names are rarely allowed on the front labels of appellation wines. The exception is Alsace, where wine lists are packed with AOP rieslings, gewürztraminers and pinot blancs; but even here most winemakers distinguish between their vins de cépage, in which the accent is on the grape’s character, and their more complex vins de terroir, where the soil’s influence is paramount. IGP wines, by contrast, frequently advertise grape varieties on their labels, which helps them to reach international markets. If in doubt, I usually pick a wine made from a local grape: although sauvignon blanc can make refreshing wines in the Pays d’Oc, I would almost always rather drink a Mediterranean variety such as viognier or marsanne.

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3 The producer

Independent wine estates, known as propriétaires-récoltants or viticulteurs, make wine from their own grapes. They’re usually proud to display their domaine or château name in prominent letters on their front labels. But wines made by négociants can be harder to identify. A négociant is a merchant house that buys grapes, juice or even finished wine, which it bottles and sells under its own brand.

A famous example is Mouton Cadet, a brand owned by the Rothschild family of Château Mouton Rothschild, made with grapes bought from other Bordeaux growers. This is also how many supermarkets buy their own-label wines, so look for the word négociant on the back label to identify the merchant bottler. Another source of own-label wine is the cooperative wine cellar, which usually appears on wine labels as La Cave de… or Les Vignerons de… To confuse things further, négociants and caves coopératives can use estate names, but only if all the grapes in the wine come from a single winery. The words mis en bouteille à la propriété/au domaine/ au château mean the wine was bottled at the estate where its grapes were grown. Although the wines from small estates benefit from the winemaker’s personal craft, the economies of scale at a cave coopérative or a négociant house mean that their wines are often sold at more competitive prices.

4 Alcohol level

The percentage of alcohol by volume (abv) in wine is a hot topic, with low-alcohol wines in high demand. As the planet has warmed, alcohol levels have risen, so wines of more than 13 per cent are now commonplace, even in traditionally cool regions such as Burgundy and the Loire Valley. Appellation rules include permitted alcohol levels, so in an unusually warm year, a producer might be forced to ‘declassify’ his wine to vin de France if it becomes too heady. There is an official tolerance of 0.5 per cent, so if you see 15 per cent on a wine label, the chances are that it’s closer to 15.5 per cent.

5 Vintage

Vintages are important markers of a wine’s style, staying power and freshness. At the top end of the claret market, bottles can vary by hundreds of pounds between vintages; while if you’re buying to glug, you should insist on drinking the most recent harvest. Up to 15 per cent of the wine can come from a vintage other than that stated on the label, so winemakers often ‘freshen’ what’s left of their previous harvest with a little of the new vintage to prolong its life. The same tolerance also applies to the grape varieties used, so you might well be drinking up to 15 per cent of a cheaper variety, such as grenache blanc, or an aroma-boosting dash of muscat, in your bottle labelled chardonnay.

6 Vieilles vignes

Literally ‘old vines,’ the term has no legal definition, but is based on the belief that older plants produce smaller quantities of more concentrated fruit. Vines can live for more than 100 years, but are generally considered ‘old’ after about 30 vintages.

7 Clos

A single, traditionally walled plot of vines.

8 Cru

Literally means ‘growth’; a single vineyard or distinct group of superior vineyards.

9 Réserve

Usually refers to an estate’s higher quality blend (distinguished from the more humble‘ Tradition’), but has no legal significance.

10 Taste

Sec: Dry

Demi-sec: Medium-dry

Moelleux/doux: Sweet

Biologique: Organic

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