Conquering the French Label

This article originally appeared in Frontdoors News.

Similar to your first go-around at algebra in high school, reading French wine labels can be a challenge. But like algebra, there’s a formula to it. Understanding the basic parts of the equation, you’ll be able to identify what you’re drinking and where it’s from.

The most important thing to remember are French wine does not list the grape varietal on the bottle. Instead, the region is displayed front and center to indicate what is in the bottle. So what we’re learning about French wines is we first need to memorize the place so we not only know where it came from geographically, but also which grapes are associated with that region.

Like math, you’ve got a little homework to do. Running through a few flash cards on the major regions and their grape varietal will go a long way.

The regions behind the wine

The great thing about French wine is the region dictates the wine. Some of the major players include:

Alsace – a primarily white-wine region in eastern France it grows Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Muscat.

Beaujolais – typically a red-wine region with Gamay grapes. Best known for its Beaujolais Nouveau.

Bordeaux – this region is home to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Here the Medoc River is the key. On the left side cabernet is grown, and on the right you have predominantly Merlot.

Burgundy (Bourgogne) – located on the eastern side of France, this region is known for producing both red and white wines. It also has the largest number of appellations of any French region, but the two main grape varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Champagne – this one needs little explanation. Many of us are familiar with the bubbly stuff. This region is in eastern France near Belgium and Luxembourg.

Loire – known as the Loire Valley, it primarily produces white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre and Chenin Blanc to name a few. Since it stretches along the Loire River, grape varieties and wine styles vary.

Rhone – the Rhone Valley, primarily a red-wine producing region, is divided into the southern and northern halves for wine growing. The two halves house a number of appellations as well.Hermitage is one appellation in Northern Rhone. It produces Syrah. As interesting side note – the AOC on labels stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). This is a French certification granted to certain geographical locations known for producing specific products. A wine with an AOC of Hermitage will always be 100 percent Syrah. The Southern Rhone Valley Chateauneuf-du-Pape is one of the most well known red wines. It is a blend containing up to 19 varieties of grapes.

Conquering the label

The three basics of a French wine label are the producer, usually listed at the top, the region, displayed front and center, and the vintage year.

Next time you pick up a white wine that says “vin de Bourgogne,” you know from your homework this is Chardonnay from the Burgundy region. Alternatively, if you pick a bottle with Hermitage featured prominently on the label, you know it is from the Rhone Valley and is 100 percent Syrah. Now you know the grape varietal, region, the vintage, and if it’s AOC and what that means; enough to decide whether it may be something you would drink.

Understanding French wine varietals is a craft in itself. With these basic variables though, you are on your way to embarking on a palatable adventure. When in doubt ask your friendly server or sommelier for their French wine recommendations, and as the French say, ” Life is too short to drink bad wine.”


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