Mon duir! French wine labels! French labels (and most wine imported from Europe) can often be confusing for beginning wine enthusiast to understand. Unlike American wines whose labels state the grape varietal, French and other European vinters do not list the varietal, but will include the area from which the wine is produced. In order to know whether you’ll be drinking a Chardonnay, Burgundy, or other wine, you’d have to know what grape varietal(s) each region produces. Fortunately, French and European wine labels does provide some helpful information such as the harvest year and the alcohol content (AVB).
Okay, so you’re standing in Aisle 3 of Safeway and you want to impress your significant other with a special French wine. You’re not a wine connoisseur nor do you have any idea of France and its geographic terrain. No worries, just follow these easy advice and tips:
Basics of French Labels: French wine labels start with the location where it was produced; this information tells you what varietal of wine it is. Like American wines from Napa, CA where you may see Rutherford or Howell Mountain on the label, the French label may specifically designate the vineyard area from where they are grown.
Two Major Regions (Burgundy and Bordeaux): While there are many wonderful wine producing regions in France, the two most popular ones you’ve probably heard of are Burgundy and Bordeaux. Knowing what type of varietals each region produces is the key to understand the type of wine you’ll be getting.
Burgundy: The region of Burgundy produces both a white and red wine. It’s pretty simple:
- White Burgundy is Chardonnay: White wine labeled as from Burgundy, FR will always be Chardonnay; so if the label says White Burgundy, this just means it’s a Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the original region which produced the white grape varietal. The grapes most often blended with Chardonnay include Chenin blanc, Colombard and Sémillon. With its combination of climate, land, and tradition, the Chardonnay region of Burgundy produces a wine that is coveted by many and never precisely replicated anywhere else. Chardonnay is the world’s most popular white grape wine varietal.
- Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir: from Burgundy will always be Pinot Noir, no exceptions! Pinot Noir is actually both the name of a red wine grape, and the wines made from this grape.
Pro Tip: Never use the term “Burgundy” to describe a wine that is not produced in Burgundy. This is a big no-no! It’s similar to how the term “Champagne” can only be used if it’s produced in Champaign, France. So, if it’s sparkly like Champagne but made in California, the beverage is called “Sparkling Wine”. The one exception to this is for those wine brands that have been grandfathered in to use the term, like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, which is actually a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes but, ironically, not Pinot Noir! Also, you may hear some winemakers outside of Burgundy refer to theirs wines as being made in a “Burgundian style” or with “Burgundian techniques” as a way to pay homage to the French region.
Bordeaux: Pop Quiz (True or False): “Bordeaux is the region in which the famous French red wines are produced”. If you said false, you get the sommelier seal of approval. While Americans usually think of red wines when we speak of Bordeaux, this region also produces some fabulous white wines as well.
- White Bordeaux is Primarily Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon: The primary grapes of White are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle. There are a few other less-known varieties used in White Bordeaux such as Colombard and Ugni Blanc (the grape used in Cognac), but most White Bordeaux are made of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. Bordeaux is where Sauvignon Blanc originated and it’s very old. In fact, it’s older than Cabernet Sauvignon! Because of the blend with Semillon, which is very subtle on its own, White Bordeaux tends to be softer and less tangy than those that come from USA or New Zealand for example. If you’re interested in learning more about the White Bordeaux, read this article.
- Red Bordeaux is Primarily a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot: When one speaks of a Red Bordeaux, they probably are talking about a Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot since those are the major varietal of Red Bordeauxs. But, many vinters also blend their Red Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Pro Tip: Have you ever heard someone explaining Bordeaux that is either from the “Left Bank” or “Right Bank”? These terms refer to the two different wine regions in Bordeaux caused by a geographic split of the Gironde River. The vintners in the Left Bank of the river primarily produce Cabernet Sauvignons, which are known for being bold, robust wines. Vintners on the Right Bank produce mainly Merlots which are generally softer, more subtle wines For more information on the Left Bank vs. Right Bank regions and wines, read this article.
Pro Tip: Did you know that red wine is made from Black Grapes (not blue or purple) and white wine can be made from white grapes or grey grapes? This is the reference to those who make wine.
Pro Tip: Bordeaux also makes a lovely sweet wine called Sauternes. This wine is also made from the two white varietals, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon but has some special qualities in the growing season, before the grapes are picked for making a new vintage. This article gives more details.
Grand Cru or Premier Cru: One other piece of information found on the labels of French wines is the terms, Grand Cru or Premier Cru. What does this mean? These labels often refer to a winery distinction as producing high quality wines in accordance with the laws and designations of France. Interested in learning more about these distinctions? Read this article.
There you have it. As you can see, it’s not too hard to understand French wines.
Remember: White Burgundy = Chardonnay. Red Burgundy = Pinot Noir. White Bordeaux – Sauvignon Blanc or Sémillon. Red Bordeaux = Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.