The Essential Guide to Reading a French Wine Label

reading a french wine label

By reading a French wine label, you can discover important information about the wine, including where the grapes were grown and how the wine was bottled. Photo Credit: Wikimedia CC user Jeremy Keith

 When I first started collecting wine, I assumed I knew everything about reading a French wine label. As long as I recognized words like “Chateauneuf du Pape,” “Grand Cru,” or “Margaux,” I thought that I could tell whether a bottle was worth buying. But as I grew older, I realized that reading a French wine label is a more complex process than I initially thought. At first, I’d often pick bottles based on the appellation listed without considering any other piece of information on the label. As a result, I ended up coming home from the wine shop with more than a few disappointing bottles.

 
If you really want to understand which wines are worth a space in your cellar based on the label alone, identifying the basic information displayed on the label isn’t enough. You also need to read between the lines, decoding what each piece of information means in order to estimate that wine’s overall quality. Using this technique, you’ll learn how to analyze any wine bottle straight off the shelf, without the wine ever touching your lips.

How to Read Each Part of the Label

Knowing the basics of a French wine label is the easy part; understanding what these labels can tell you about a wine’s quality is a skill that requires a deeper set of knowledge. However, before you begin reading a French wine label more deeply, you’ll need to ensure that you can find all of the following information on the bottle first:

Reading a French Wine Label

Producer

If you’re a collector or at all interested in wine, you’ve probably already got this down. This is the winery’s name, and is often written in the largest or second-largest font on the label. If you aren’t familiar with the producer, look for words like “Chateau,” “Maison,” or “Domaine.” On rare occasions, some producers also share a name with the appellation in which they grow their grapes, like Margaux.

Vintage

This is almost always the only date listed on the front of the wine bottle, making it one of the simplest pieces of information to identify.

Appellation or Varietal

This is the trickiest part of reading a French wine label. While some bottles will have both the appellation and the varietal of wine listed on the front of the label, others might only list the appellation. That’s because some appellations are only known for making one type of wine varietal, and as such, producers don’t feel the need to list additional information on the label.

For instance, a bottle of 2016 Ausone simply gives the appellation, Saint-Emilion, on the label–they assume that collectors will already know that most red Saint-Emilion Bordeaux is a blend of primarily Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This is why you won’t want to spend too much time searching for the varietal when reading a French wine label.

Alcohol Content

The Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of the wine will almost always be listed at the very bottom of the label in fine print, or, sometimes, on the back of the bottle.

Size

Next to the ABV, you’ll likely see the size of the bottle on the label. This information isn’t important to seek out unless you’re looking for a particularly unusual wine bottle size, like a Jeroboam or an Imperial.

Where the Wine Was Bottled

You might have to hunt for this information on the back of the label. Typically, producers will only make this information prominent when they bottle the wine themselves directly on the estate, as this is a selling point for a wine.

Winery Owner and Address

The winery owner or main winemaker isn’t always the same as the estate itself. The individual winemaker or owner could change, while the estate name remains the same. This happens if a winemaker retires or an estate falls under new ownership. You can use the winemaker’s name to determine how collectible that wine is, or what the style will likely be.

Classification

A classification is a bit like a rating–examples are grand cru, premier cru, etc. Not all French wine appellations have official classifications, but those that do will list this information prominently on the bottle.

While all of this information is useful to know, only a few of these categories can help you tell whether a wine is worth collecting. You should focus on appellation, classification, where the wine was bottled, and who the winery owner or winemaker is if you want to decide whether an unfamiliar wine is worth buying.

Reading a French Wine Label by Appellation

I usually buy Bordeaux from appellations in the Right Bank, rather than the Left, because I adore the soft flavors of Right Bank wines. But as an experiment a few years ago, I decided to only buy Bordeaux from the year 2009 without considering appellation at all; I ended up with nearly a dozen bottles of Left Bank Bordeaux that gathered dust in my pantry.

This is just one reason why the appellation that’s listed on the label matters. When reading a French wine label, you should look for appellations that you tend to enjoy drinking, or, if you want to flip your wine for a profit, only choose the appellations that are most valuable.

Here are just a few of the highest-quality French appellations that you might see on a great bottle of wine:

Bordeaux

  • Pomerol
  • Margaux
  • Pauillac
  • Medoc
  • St. Estephe
  • St. Emilion
  • Sauternes

Burgundy

  • Chablis
  • Macon
  • Cote de Beaune
  • Nuits St. Georges
  • Corton
  • Chambertin
  • Bonnes Mares
  • Clos de Vougeot

Rhône  

  • Cote Rotie
  • Hermitage
  • Châteauneuf du Pape
  • Cotes du Rhône–Villages

Because each of the appellations above has a reputation for having the best growing conditions in the area, they are often relatively safe investments for your cellar.

Reading a French Wine Label by Classification

Many regions of France classify and rank their wines because it makes deciphering a wine label easier for collectors. Let’s say you have a choice between 10 different bottles of Chambertin from the same vintage. To choose the highest quality wine, you’ll need to stick with bottles that say “Grand Cru” or “Premier Cru” on the label, as these are officially recognized for their excellence.

Each region of France has its own classification system; a Premier Cru in Burgundy doesn’t mean the same thing as a Premier Cru in Bordeaux. Moreover, some regions of France don’t even have classification systems. Still, when you know the basic differences between the most popular wine regions of France, you can easily read any label.

Burgundy

reading a french wine label

Burgundy wines rarely change in classification–once a producer receives a certain official rating, it’s rare for that rating to change. You’ll find the following classifications on every Burgundy label, listed below from highest to lowest in overall quality:

  • Grand Cru
  • Premier Cru
  • Villages
  • Regionales

While you can find excellent wines under all four classifications, Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines are usually the safest investments for collectors who want to age or resell their wine.

Bordeaux

reading a french wine label

Like Burgundy, Bordeaux’s classifications rarely change. Here are the classifications that you’ll see on every Bordeaux wine label, ranked from highest to lowest in overall quality:

  • First Growth (Premier Cru, 1er Cru)
  • Second Growth (Deauxiemes Cru)
  • Third Growth (Troisiemes Cru)
  • Fourth Growth (Quatriemes Cru)
  • Fifth Growth (Cinquiemas Cru)

As with Burgundy wines, the top two tiers are the most collectible. In addition, Sauternes has one specific category above First Growth, called Grand Premier Cru; Yquem is the only producer with this title.

Champagne

reading a french wine label

Rather than ranking its wines by producer, Champagne ranks entire villages instead. This means that all of the individual producers located within that village receive the same ranking. The villages are rated on a scale from 1 to 100. Here are the rankings you’ll see on Champagne bottles:

  • Grand Cru (100)
  • Premier Cru (90-99)
  • All other villages (80-89)

Currently, no Champagne village is ranked below 80 on the scale, however, the most collectible bottles will usually rank above 90, at minimum.

Rhône  

reading a french wine label

Unlike the other regions above, Rhône doesn’t have an official classification system. Instead, Rhône uses a complex naming scheme on its labels to signify quality. Rhône only allows high-quality producers to use certain appellation names on their bottles.

Here’s how to tell whether you have a high-quality Rhône, based on the label:

  • If the appellation name stands alone: This is a sign of very high-quality Rhône. Some producers even list the specific vineyard in which the grapes were grown, in addition to the appellation, which is the sign of an extremely high-quality wine.
  • If the label says “Cotes du Rhône -Villages + the appellation name”: The wine is lower in quality than if the appellation name stands alone, but it’s still a high-quality wine.
  • If the label only says “Cotes du Rhône -Villages”: These wines aren’t high quality enough to allow the appellation name to be on the label, but they’re not especially low in quality either.
  • If the label only says “Cotes du Rhône”: This is the lowest-quality Rhône on the market.

You can find decent wines under all of the Rhône naming schemes above, however, collectors will usually have the most success with the top two tiers.

Find Rare Wines from the Label’s Listed Winemaker

As we noted earlier in this guide, a producer/winery name and winemaker aren’t always the same. For instance, Maison Louis Jadot was originally owned and operated by Louis Jadot in the 1800s, but today, the estate’s main winemaker is Frédéric Barnier, while the owners of the winery are the Kopf sisters and the winery’s operator is Pierre-Henry Gagey. However, since Barnier is the one primarily responsible for how the wine tastes, you’ll likely see his name listed on any new bottles of Louis Jadot, which can tell you something about how that wine will taste, and what it’s worth.

That’s because every winemaker has a unique style that often alters the overall quality and flavor of an estate’s wine decade-to-decade. One winemaker might prefer a bold, fruit-forward wine, while another pursues a softer, more floral profile. While producers generally try to pick winemakers whose preferences will mesh well with the overarching reputation of the winery, there’s always some slight variation whenever a winery changes winemakers. You can use this information to your advantage by identifying the winemakers that you enjoy, and seeking out wines that have this winemaker on the label. Top winemakers often work under a few different producers throughout their careers, so you might end up with bottles from more than one producer, which can make a fun comparison.

Additionally, you can look for wines made by certain winemakers after they retire from the business, or hold onto those wines until after the winemaker retires to see your investment grow. In the case of Henri Jayer, for example, he made popular wines while he was the primary winemaker for his estate, but after he retired, those wines became even more valuable because they represented some of the last vintages that he ever made. Finding an iconic winemaker’s name on a relatively obscure wine label could add significant value to your collection.

Pay Close Attention to Bottling Methods

One of the last steps to reading a French wine label is to check where the wine was bottled, as this could completely change how the wine tastes and how valuable it actually is on the secondary market. In France, it’s relatively common to grow grapes in one location, and have those grapes processed and bottled in another location. Some French appellations prefer to focus on grape growing alone, or simply don’t have the resources they need to bottle the wine themselves. In other words, just because a wine label says that the wine was bottled in a different location doesn’t always mean that the wine inside is of lower quality than an estate-bottled wine.

Here are two terms that you might see when reading a French wine label, and their definitions:

  • Mis en bouteille au domaine (or château, or proprietaire): This is a wine that was grown and bottled on the estate itself.
  • Mis en bouteille dans nos Caves (or Chais): This literally means that the wine that was bottled in the estate’s cellars, and generally implies that the grapes used were brought in from elsewhere.

Some wineries will try to trick consumers by saying that their wines come from a sought-after appellation, when in reality, the winery only bottled their wine in that appellation. Since most French appellations have strict classification systems and guidelines about what information can and can’t be on a label, this isn’t a terribly common problem, but it could still crop up if you don’t read the label carefully. To ensure that your wine actually comes from the appellation you want, it’s a good idea to check the bottling location.

Attention to Detail Is Key

When reading a French wine label, it’s important to consider every piece of information available, not just the producer name or appellation, and to take them together in context. This attention to detail will give you a fuller picture of a wine’s style and value. Now that I’ve learned how to read these labels properly, I rarely have to research tasting notes online for every single bottle–I can narrow my choices down to just a few wines based solely on information I get from the label. This has sped up my wine shopping experience, and has even given me the chance to try brand new wines from promising French appellations.

Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. We carry excellent investment wines from the best vineyards across the globeContact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.

Image by Jeremy Keith (originally posted to Flickr as Braille wine label) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles--we love sharing a great glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.