Your 5 minute guide to French wine labels

Your 5 minute guide to French wine labels
If French wine labels seem a bit complicated, it’s because they kinda are. But our 5 minute guide is here to give you a few more clues when it comes to reading French labels.
The French wine industry is both vast and intricate. For a sense of scale, compared to New Zealand, France has 20 times more land under vine, and they’ve been making wine 2500 years longer than us. Their labels reflect a highly regulated, complex industry that’s steeped in history. All of this, and a language barrier can make French labels seem intimidating. So read on for a bit of clarification.  
Like all things wine, there’s exceptions and complications to everything. So don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions, or if there’s a 5 Minute Guide we can do to help you.

Spot The Appellation

  • In New Zealand we mostly label wines by variety. French wines however, are labelled by where they come from. These are known as appellations. Find this on a label and (maybe with a quick google) you’ll be able to figure out the variety and style of the wine. For example, if a wine says Champagne, you immediately know that it’s sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grown in the Champagne region in the north east of France.
  • Appellations are legally defined, protected growing areas. They are strictly regulated, and serve to ensure that wines express terroir. This is a French word that sums up a wine showing typicity of place. It’s pronounced teh - wah. 
  • Appellations also highlight particular sites that have been found to be more favourable and unique. For example Chablis has a Premier Cru appellation, with 89 vineyards that can be labelled as such. As well as a Grand Cru appellation, of just 7 vineyards. Wines from these vineyards are considered the very best, and it’ll be no surprise to you that they fetch higher prices.


Clues about the Producer

  • ‘Château’ indicates more than just a big country home or castle. It indicates that the grapes are grown and the wine is made on the estate. It tells of a geographic unity. You’ll also see ‘mise en bouteille au Château’ to further show that everything, including bottling, is done at the estate. You’ll generally  see Château on wines from Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley and Loire Valley.
  • Domaine (meaning territory) indicates that a producer's wines come from vineyards scattered around different villages in a region. Rather than the geographic unity of a Chateau, a Domaine seeks to express the individual character of each different vineyard. Domaines are more common in Burgundy where vineyards have become divided into smaller plots. 
  • If you see ‘Negociant’ on a label it’s a producer who’s grapes don’t come from their own estate. They buy either fruit, juice or finished wine and bottle it under their own label. 


The Familiar 

Just like in New Zealand, producers will show the alcohol content and vintage of wine. The producer's address will also be on the label.


The Unfamiliar

There’s a plethora of other words on French wine labels. Here’s a few we see commonly - 

Brut - a dry wine

Clos - this is a vineyard enclosed by a stone wall. These are more prevalent in Burgundy.

Côtes - a hillside. Wines from the Côtes-du-Rhone come from the hillsides of the Rhone Valley. 

Cru - this is a vineyard of designated quality, often preceded by Premier or Grand. 

Cuvée - this is a batch or blend of wine. It’s used mostly in Champagne where the wines are less likely to come from a single vintage. 

Millésime - a vintage. Again this is mostly used in Champagne where wines are less likely to come from a single vintage. 

Proprietaire - Owner of the chateau or vineyard.

Recoltes - A wine made from estate grown grapes.

Sec or Doux - a sweet wine

Vieilles Vignes - Old Vines