Decoding French Wine Labels and Terms - Spades Wines & Spirits

Learn useful information about French wine (by looking at the label) to find out what the wine is made of and what quality level it is.

One of the more confusing wine regions to delve into is France because it’s so hard to know what you’re buying based on the label. Fortunately, you can learn a few facts about French wine and how it’s labeled to improve your ability to find better wines (regardless of price).

Navigating a French Wine Label

This bottle of red Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvginon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

France labels wines by region and not grape variety. This labeling behavior works well because there are 200+ unique varieties in France and many of the wine regions blend grape varieties together. So, when you look at a label, the first thing to pay attention to (besides the producer name) is the name of the region where the wine originates. This is your best clue to determine what grapes are in the wine.

What wines does each French wine region produce?

It’s pretty common for French wines not to be labeled with the grape varieties in the wine. So, it’s helpful to know what major wine grape varieties are produced in each wine region of France.

Beyond knowing what’s inside the bottle there are a myriad of other French wine terms that appear on labels. While there are several terms that apply to all French wines, some terms are used only in specific regions. Here is list of terms to know that are often found on French wine labels:

  • Biologique: Organically produced
  • Blanc de Blancs: A term for sparkling wines to denote a white sparkling wine made with 100% white grapes. (100% Chardonnay in Champagne)
  • Blanc de Noirs: A term for sparkling wines to denote a white sparkling wine made with 100% black grapes. (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne)
  • Brut: a term for sweetness level in sparkling wine. Brut indicates a dry style.
  • Cépage: The grapes used in the wine (Encépagement is the proportions of the blend).
  • Château: A winery
  • Clos: A walled vineyard or vineyard on the site of an ancient walled vineyard. Commonly used in Burgundy.
  • Côtes: Wines from a slope or hillside (contiguous)–usually along a river (e.g. Côtes du Rhône “slopes of the Rhône river”)
  • Coteaux: Wines from a grouping of slopes or hillsides (non-contiguous) (e.g. Coteaux du Layon “slopes along the Layon river”)
  • Cru: Translates to “growth” and indicates a vineyard or group of vineyards typically recognized for quality
  • Cuvée: Translates to “vat” or “tank” but is used to denote a specific wine blend or batch
  • Demi-Sec: off-dry (lightly sweet)
  • Domaine: A winery estate with vineyards
  • Doux: Sweet
  • Élevé en fûts de chêne: Aged in oak
  • Grand Cru: Translates to “Great Growth” and is used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s best vineyards.
  • Grand Vin: Used in Bordeaux to indicate a winery’s “first label” or best wine they produce. It’s common for Bordeaux wineries to have a 2nd or 3rd label at varying price tiers.
  • Millésime: The vintage date. This term is commonly used in the Champagne region. 
  • Mis en bouteille

    “mis en bouteille”

    • Mis en bouteille au château/domaine: Bottled at the winery
    • Moelleux: Sweet
    • Mousseux: Sparkling
    • Non-filtré: An unfiltered wine
    • Pétillant: Lightly sparkling
    • Premiere Cru (1er Cru): Translates to “First Growth” and is used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s 2nd best vineyards.
    • Propriétaire: Owner of winery
    • Sec: Dry (e.g. not sweet)
    • Supérieur: A regulatory term commonly used in Bordeaux to describe a wine with higher minimum alcohol and aging requirements than the base.
    • Sur Lie: A wine that is aged on lees (dead yeast particles) which are known to give a creamy/bready taste and increased body. This term is most commonly found with Muscadet of the Loire.
    • Vendangé à la main: Hand harvested
    • Vieille Vignes: Old vines
    • Vignoble: Vineyard
    • Vin Doux Naturel (VDN): A wine that is fortified during fermentation (usually a sweet dessert wine).

    French Wine Classification

French wines and wine labels are controlled by a wine classification system called Appellation d’Origine Protégée or AOP This system was first developed in 1936 by Baron Pierre Le Roy who also founded the regulatory board for wine in France (called INAO ). AOP is essentially a hierarchical system of rules and regulations that determine where the wines are produced, what they are made of and their level of quality.Generally speaking, the more specific the region is, the higher the rank.