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Tips for reading wine labels: French wines

Posted by Atanas Nechkov on January 24, 2019

In French Wines, Wine, Wine Labels

Wine labels are supposed to paint a clear picture of what to expect from a particular bottle of wine.  Generally, a wine label has two parts worth special attention. The first is, required legal information that varies depending on the country where the wine is produced. Even different appellations within the same country have various regulations to abide by. The second being artistic renderings of text and graphics.

French wine labels are the most strict and complex. However, they’re also the most informationally useful for the consumer. The French wine labeling laws are legislated by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) and VINIFLHOR, part of the French Ministry of Agriculture. At first glance, they may seem hard to decipher, but with a simple basic understanding, they equip the consumer with the most beneficial information to help them make an educated selection.

French Wines

The label legality

Here are the three primary classification tiers:

  • AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée and formerlyknown as AOC) is the most regulated category- warranting the highest quality wines.
  • IGP (Indication Geographique Protégée) or VDP (Vin de Pays) is less regulated- mostly easing restrictions on approved grape varieties, but also yields and minimum alcohol percentage. Unlike AOP, IGP could include hybrids of Vitis Vinifera varieties. Irrigation is also not permitted for AOP and IGP wines.
  • VIN DE FRANCE is the latest (first introduced in 2010) and most basic regional quality for French wines. The grapes can originate from anywhere in France and different regions can be blended. Vin de France are often labeled by grape variety and most importantly can indicate a vintage. Acidification and use of oak chips are allowed for this level. This category was created to compete against the much less regulated wines from the new world.

There is one more category in the appellation quality pyramid of wines sold in France, hopefully never or rarely to be seen on the export markets:

 VIN DE LA COMMUNAUTEE EUROPEENNE (European Wine). In this category, the grapes need to originate in one of the European Union member countries. Mention of vintage is not allowed.

2015 Domaine Gueguen Chablis

 Two words that often appear on French wine labels are Domaine and Château. These are legal terms, referring to ownership of the vineyards. For a wine to be labeled as Domaine, 100 percent of the grapes have to come from this domain’s own vineyards. Winemakers may not purchase grapes from other growers. If that happens, the wine will lose the right to mention ‘Domaine’ on the label. Château requires that the vinification, aging and bottling is done on the premises. Most domains vinify, age and bottle on the premises as well.

In almost all cases, domain wines will be higher quality than wines from wine cooperatives, which are generally higher quality than négociant wine brands from purchased fruit. ‘Domaine’ designated wines should be the priority choice when shopping for wine.

The word Reserve is rarely seen and has no legal or any significance on French wine labels. In fact, there is no certainty or guarantee the wine is of higher quality. To the contrary, it would indicate a cheap négociant, probably designated for export.

The vintage

All French Appellation wines, including the Vin De France wines, can and do mention the vintage (year of harvest) on the label. The only exceptions are the non-vintage Champagnes, which are a blend of base wines from several vintages. It is close to impossible to find a French wine without mention of vintage, but in the improbable case that you do, don’t buy that bottle. French wines represent some of the best values on the wine market today. With the exception of some high-end cuvées Champagne, First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Crus Burgundies, which are subject to limited supply and accrued demand on the world market - most of the French wines in the $10 to $30 price range have not seen much of a price change in the last couple of decades. Their quality, however, has remained high or even improved. For that reason, we find some of the best values in quality wine today in the Rhône Valley (Côtes du Rhône Villages, Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Rasteau, Crozes-Hermitage), regional red Burgundy and whites from Chablis and the Macônnais (Macôn-Villages, Pouilly-Fuissé), dry rosés from Corsica and everyday-useful whites from Gascony and the Loire Valley, and reds and whites from petits châteaux in Bordeaux.


French wines I suggest

Domaine de Verquiere RasteauThe 2016 Domaine de Verquière Rasteau is a blend of 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah grown on steep clay-limestone slopes and aged in barrels for 12 months. The wine exhibits deep ruby color, aromas and flavors of red and dark berries, field flowers and touch of spice and earthy notes. The firm, but well-rounded tannins are in perfect balance with the rich fruit. This full-bodied, but smooth and elegant wine, will pair well with multitude of dishes, including grilled and stewed meats, duck, roasted lamb, but also mixed salads and aged cheeses.

Domaine Gueguen ChablisThe 2017 Domaine Gueguen Chablis exhibits pale gold color and complex aromas and flavors of citrus, green apple, star-fruit and white flowers; richness and freshness are in perfect balance on the palate, and the finish is an incredible 30+ seconds.

Enjoy it as aperitif with light appetizers or with your favorite sea-food dishes, raw oysters, fish carpaccio, grilled shrimp, Safran-flavored scallops or even pork filet-mignon.


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