Parlez-vous français? Even if you are limited to “oui” and “merci,” you will be able to translate French wine labels like a native after reading this short primer.
In the new world, wine labels are all about promoting the variety of grapes used to make the wine, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay. In France, however, terroir is king. It’s all about the region where the grapes were grown, such as Bordeaux, Champagne, or Burgundy, with often not even a mention of the grape varieties involved.
Rarely will you see a wine from the Chablis region disclose that it is made from Chardonnay grapes. Instead, it is intended that the region represent unoaked Chardonnay wines. There are twenty-two wine growing regions in France, all of which have their strong points, but these five will give you some of the most joyful pops and sips imaginable.
The Bordeaux Region: Big Red Sips
Known for its superb red wines, this iconic region has become the standard by which most others are judged. When you see Bordeaux on the label, you know that the wine will deliver a full-bodied, earthy sip made from one or more of these six grapes:
The Bordeaux region is divided by the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne River estuaries. The Left, or West, Bank, specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. The Right, or East, Bank produces wines based on Merlot.
Regions of prominence of the Left or West Bank of Bordeaux:
Regions of prominence of the Right or East Bank of Bordeaux:
- Saint Émilion
The Champagne Region: Bubbles Galore
Most notable for Méthode Champenoise, the unique process of second fermentation that produces effervescence in the bottle, only wines made from grapes grown in the Champagne region can officially bear that name on the label. Other bubbly wines must read “sparkling wine,” or “Crémant.” Others bear regional names of “Cava” from Spain, or “Prosecco” from Italy. The bottle may be labeled with a particular vintage, meaning it was made from grapes grown during an exceptionally good year, or blended with multiple vintages, displaying an “NV” or “non-vintage” label.
The primary grapes used to make Champagne are:
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
Champagne is most often a dry sparkling wine with low levels of sweetness, but is produced in a range of styles, listed from dry to sweet, with something for every palate:
- Brut Nature
- Extra Brut
- Extra Dry
Champagne comes in three basic styles:
- Blanc de Blanc: 100 percent Chardonnay grapes
- Blanc de Noir: Made from either of the Pinot Grapes
- Rose: May be made from a blend of both Chardonnay and Pinot grapes
The Burgundy Region: Celebrating Both Red and White
Centuries ago French monks sectioned off this region of Eastern France into a complex map of vineyards. There are five major sub-regions in Burgundy, each specializing in a particular style of wine:
- Chablis: unoaked Chardonnays
- Côte d’Or: superior Grand Cru Pinot Noir wines from the north part of the region known as Côte de Nuits, and highly acclaimed Chardonnay wines from the south part of the region known as Côte de Beaune.
- Côte Chalonnaise: both reds and whites of high quality from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Gamay grapes.
- Maconnais: good quality Chardonnays, especially from the Pouilly-Fuissé sub-region.
- Beaujolais: Gamay grapes, hand-picked and vatted in whole bunches without being crushed, makes a lighter red wine with a fruity nose and lower level of tannins.
The top Burgundy vineyards produce exceptional wines bearing Grand Cru status, followed by Premier or 1er Cru wines. Village wines, named for the village where they are grown, and Borgogne wines made from grapes grown throughout the Burgundy region, are lower quality wines, yet often still quite good.
Alsace: Nestled Up Next to Germany
Using the grape varietal as its most popular label focus, the Alsace wines are easiest to understand. Known for light, fresh, un-oaked white wines, the Alsace produces wines made from these grapes:
Southern France’s searing hot summers encourage worthy reds, while its punishing northern climate yields aromatic whites, made from these grapes:
The many sub-regions in the Rhône Valley have developed their own blending and style requirements, but generally, the red Syrahs and the white Viogniers are delightfully pure single varietals. One of the most famous reds, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, used up to 13 different grape varieties in the making of its wine. In 2009, this number was increased to 18.
With a high level of acidity as well as alcohol, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (shah-tow-noof dew pop) delivers a layered taste composed of touches suggesting dark fruit, earth, leather, smoke, tobacco, clove, or vanilla. These wines are on the pricy side, but many others mentioned here can be quite a good value, expanding your wine palate along with your French vocabulary. Speaking of which, might be expanded with a few last terms:
Cave: wine cellar
Mis en bouteille au château/domaine: bottled at the chateau or domaine
Propriétaire: estate or vineyard owner
Récoltant: grape grower/harvester
Supérieur: high alcohol content wine made from riper grapes
Vieilles vignes: old vines
Vigneron: Vine/grape grower