French labels decoded
What’s With These Crazy French Labels?
Label language is a large part of what intimidates consumers and prevents us from exploring the great wines of the old world. Is Grand Cru better than premier (1er) Cru, and what does it all mean? Is the wine sweet or dry? What grapes are in it? For Pete’s sake, is it white or red?!?!? The good news is that you do not need to speak French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German to understand their respective wine labels. There are a few simple rules and phrases that you can learn that will allow for a pretty solid understanding of what you are in for.
The first and most important aspect to Old World label language is learning how the appellations are worded. An appellation is delineated area of land that produces wine under a certain amount of set guidelines. For example, in Bordeaux, France, if one wishes to put the name Bordeaux name on the label of a red wine, they must use the five red Bordeaux grapes, (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec). This allows the consumer to know that if the wine is red and labeled Bordeaux that it will be comprised of grapes that usually produce big, structured, and powerful wines. In the case of France, the highest-level wine appellations are labeled by their AOC. (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) The second is the VDQS, (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure) and the third is the Vin de Pays. In the case of Italy, at the top is the DOCG, (Denominazione di Origine Controllata Garantita), then DOC, then IGT. (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) In Spain the top is the DOC, (Denominacion De Origen Calificada), followed by the DO. You will usually find the Spanish DO sticker on the back of the bottle. It is important to keep in mind that the classification of a wine bears little relevance on the actual quality of the wine. Knowing the producer is really the best way to ensure the quality of your wine, but appellation labels do offer us an expectation as to the style that may be produced and where they are from. For example, Italy labeled all of Chianti a DOCG. There is so much bad Chianti made, that by labeling them all DOCG, Italy has lowered the standard for that appellation classification. If Italy had labeled the higher quality regions in Chianti, such as the Classico and Rufina regions, DOCG and the rest of Chianti stayed a DOC it would have helped preserve a quality guarantee for the higher classification. Despite the hazy quality factor, we do know that Chianti will be lighter in body and Sangiovese focused.
Here is a list of label terminology and their meanings in reference to French wines. If you would like a similar breakdown for Italy, Spain, Germany, or Portugal feel free to e-mail your request to me at zev
Blanc de Blanc: This means "White of Whites"; usually it refers to Champagne, but not always
Blanc de Noir: "White of Blacks," a white wine produced of only black grapes
Brut: Refers to dry sparkling wines
Chateau: Literally means Castle, but when in terms of wine it refers to the producing body and the actual "Chateau" may be as modest as a tin shack where the wine is produced
Cremant: low pressure, or slightly sparkling wine.
Cru Bourgeois: a classification created in the Medoc, Bordeaux after the Cru Classe
Cru Classe: The highest set of classifications in Bordeaux
Cuvee: This is a term that refers to a specific blend or production from a house
Domaine: This refers to wine that is produced from many vineyards throughout a region
Grand Cru: This refers to wines that are produced from the finest vineyards, literally means "great growth"
Grand Vin: This refers to the 1st wine produced by a Chateau, most Chateaux also produce 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th wines that come from lower quality grape selection
Mis en bouteille au Chateau or domaine: this term means that the wine is produced and grown in the domaine or Chateau on the label.
Moelleux: These are medium sweet wines
Monopole: These are wines that come from one producer and one vineyard owned entirely by that producer. In regions like Burgundy these are very rare and very
Negociant: This is a wine that is put together by someone that buys wine from many producers than assembles them for export and distribution
Perlant: Very slightly sparkling
Petillance: Slightly sparkling
Premier Cru: This is a high classification for a wine that is in most regions a step below a grand cru classification. It literally means first growth. Also seen as 1er cru.
Produit: product of
Rubis: darker style rose
Sec: Sparkling wines one step sweeter that brut
Superieur- referring to a wine that is higher in alcohol than is required by the appellation
Vieilles Vignes: old vines, usually at least 35-50 years
Vin de Glace: the French version of Eiswein or Ice Wine
Vin de Table: the classification below vin de pays
Vin Nouveau: a young wine meant to be drank within weeks of its harvest, I am sure we have all heard of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in NYC and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queeries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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