How to decipher a French wine label

Confused by the terminology on your favourite French bottles? We’re here to help. Here is a brief rundown on the most common words and phrases you’re likely to see.

French wine labels vary both from region to region and the quality level of the wine in the bottle. Some aspects and wording are obligatory, and you’ll see them across all labels, because a wine label is in fact a legal document – a wine’s passport, in other words.

Learning a little more about what is on the label can help you understand more about the wine inside the bottle and what to expect. And although French wine law can be complicated, it is well-established and controlled and helps to protect both the end user and the producer. Labels must also comply with EU law. 

Labels explained

French wine labels explained – the legals 

As a minimum, all French wine labels must show: 

  • The name and address of the supplier and / or bottler 
  • The country of origin (France!) 
  • The quantity (a standard bottle is 75cl) 
  • Alcoholic strength, shown as a percentage by volume 
  • Allergy information (such as ‘Contains sulphites’)

The quality classifications 

French wine is essentially divided into three quality categories, largely determined by where the wine is made (or more accurately, where the grapes that made it are grown). 

  1. AOC/AOPappellation d’origine contrôlée or appellation d’origine protégée – this is the geographical origin of the wine, and in France, this automatically tells you a bit about the wine as the AOC laws determine the grape varieties and style. The region in question might be large, for example Appellation Bourgogne Blanc Contrôlée – which tells us that this is a white wine made from chardonnay grapes from anywhere in the delimited Burgundy region. If, like The Society’s White Burgundy, it is produced in a smaller sub-region, it might carry a different sub-regional appellation such as Mâcon-Villages, which means the chardonnay grapes can come from any villages within the Mâconnais that qualify for this denomination.

    Take a look at our regional guides to find out more about buying from specific French regions 
  2. Vin de Pays/IGP – Country wine or wine from a protected geographic region. This category still relates to a specific geographic region but gives the winemaker more freedom to play around with different grape varieties. Producers will often put the grape varieties on the label, giving wine drinkers more of a clue as to what the wine tastes like.

    Here are some of the more common IGPs to look out for:
    1. Pays d’Oc (Languedoc – southern France)
    2. Côtes de Gascogne (South West France)
    3. Val de Loire (Loire Valley – formally known by the rather romantic-sounding Vin de Pays du Jardin de la Loire)
    4. Côtes Catalanes (Roussillon)
    5. Méditerranée (south-eastern France, Provence in particular)
  3. Vin de France – The broadest of all categories (previously known as Vin de Table). The label does not have to say where the wine is from or state grape varieties, although they often do. Vin de France allows producers to blend across regional boundaries to get the best of both worlds. It can also be used for wines made from grapes not permitted in the region’s appellation regulations.

The most popular French wine terms 

There’s a wealth of wine lingo that can turn up on labels – here are the most common ones:

  • Sweetness, especially of sparkling wine and Champagne 
    Brut (bone dry), sec (dry), demi-sec (medium-dry or off-dry), doux or moelleux (sweet).
  • Colour
    Blanc (white), rouge (red), rosé (pink).
  • Place
    Château (castle/manor house), domaine (estate), cave (cellar).
  • People
    Propriétaire (owner of estate/vineyard), Cave Co-operative (a syndicate of wine producers/growers), Récoltant (grower/harvester), Chef de Cave (cellarmaster/winemaker), Vigneron (winemaker), Viticulteur (grape grower), Négociant (merchants who buy in grapes or wine and sell either under their own name or label or on the producer’s behalf. Most often seen in Bordeaux and Burgundy).
  • Vineyards & classifications
    Vignoble (vineyard), Cru (a ‘growth’, also denotes the status of the vineyard or winery), Cru Classé (a classified vineyard), Grand Cru (a ‘great growth’, a highly-thought-of vineyard/winery).

    If the vineyards are on a slop or hillsides, you might see Côte or Coteaux on the label.
  • Cuvée – in Champagne this means the first pressings of grapes (the best); elsewhere it can refer to a blend of wines or selection made by the winemaker.
  • Vendange Tardive – means grapes are harvested late. Used especially in Alsace.
  • Vieilles Vignes – old vines. There is no legal definition of what constitutes old but in general, older vines lead to wines with greater concentration of fruit. Read more on old vines here. 

We hope you’re now a little more familiar with the terms you’ll find on a French wine label. As ever, if you need any help or advice with any bottle The Society sells, please get in touch with Member Services. They’ll be happy to help – and decipher any French wine labels you’re unsure about! 


>>Find out more in our regional guides 

>>Browse all French wine 

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