French Wine Labels

On The Grapevine, Feb 2011

Bro Mike , Wine Correspondant

French Wine Labels

Ever been confused with French wine labels? I certainly have. Hopefully the following will help demystify the complexity a little.

Any introduction to French wine labels would have to begin with an understanding of the famous French wine term "Terroir". Terroir is the interaction of soil, topography, growing conditions and climate that give wine grapes a unique character. Over a long period of cultivation the French deemed it appropriate that only certain types of grapes grow best in certain types of locations. This gave way to the 20th century French regulatory system called Appellation d'origine Contrôlée (AOC). A wine producer must grow only those grapes allowed in the specific AOC region to produce AOC wines.

The idea behind AOC was to give the wine consumer a type of quality assurance. In time, AOC regions added criteria governing production such as allowable grape yields per acre, what kind of grapes may be blended together, how vineyards are irrigated etc.

So how are we supposed to know how to purchase French wines – by growing region? For example, only Chardonnay grapes are allowed to be used in white AOC wines from Burgundy. It is presumed that we know that a white wine labelled "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée Burgundy" contains Chardonnay. This is okay if you're familiar with the hundreds of appellations and sub-appellations in France. But for many, their understanding of French wine geography is rudimentary.

Therefore the first step in learning about French wine labels is to learn what grape varieties are allowed to be grown and bottled under what AOC regions. A further article will elaborate on this important aspect.

AOC is just one category of quality for French wine. The VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) is a designation just below AOC, and is usually a temporary designation for smaller, experimental wine regions that are eventually granted full AOC status.

Vin de Pays, below VDQS, means "country wines." Wines carrying this designation have ties to specific geographical regions and are made following guidelines similar to AOC designations. Vin de Pays designations are beneficial to wine producers who can't meet the strict standards of an AOC, or who want to experiment with different grape varieties or develop vineyards in new growing regions which don't carry an AOC designation. Because of this, Vin de Pays producers are allowed to put the grape variety name on their label.

Finally, there is Vin de Table - "table wines" - the most basic wine quality designation in France is ordinary wine to be drunk at the table with a simple meal.

Here are two fictitious wines to help understand French wine labels (click on the labels to enlarge them):

Because we know (or are presumed to know) that all AOC red wine from Pauillac, Bordeaux is made from blends of several grape varieties - most notably, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc - we are buying a red wine made from a blend of those grapes with the highest Bordeaux status. If this were a real wine, we might pay dearly for the privilege of drinking it.

The Vin de Pays, is altogether different. First, it has the name of the predominate grape variety (Merlot) on the label, although it is likely to be rounded out by blending with the same grapes used in the Bordeaux wine. We also know that it was bottled at the chateau. And we further know, although it does not have an AOC designation, that it does conform to growing practices established by the Vin de Pays d'Oc. We will most likely pay a lot less for this wine than the AOC wine above depending on the reputation of the chateau.

Therefore, we know from the labels that both wines were made and bottled at the chateau where they were produced. Assuming both were produced with the same loving care by experienced winemakers from grapes of good quality, what is the difference between the two wines? Location or the "Terroir"! And it is because of this location of origin - plus, of course, the reputation of the wine producer - that establishes the price we pay.

Remember that while the label gives us information as to the location of the producing chateau (which in turn tells us in most instances the grape variety we are presumed to know), it is of itself not an indication of superiority. Nor is the price of the wine. In theory, there's nothing in these labels to indicate the wines are not of a similar quality.