French Wine Classifications: How To Read French Wine Labels

Informational

 Bottles of wine lined up in front of barrel


Do you know what kind of French wine you’re partaking in on a fine evening? French wines are some of the best and most well-known globally, and it is important to know their classifications and how to read a French wine label. 

The French wine classification is a type of quality assessment. It was established to protect the “typicité” of regional wines and allow consumers to make informed choices when purchasing a bottle. So, keep on reading to know more about them.

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What are the Main Wine Classifications in France?

The French have been known for their vast array of wine types, but in 2012 they began to adopt a new classification system. Rather than the four tiers of quality long used by France's wines before this change, there are now three categories, which are discussed below.

1. AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) 

AOP means so much more than just protecting a wine's origins, as it is also a mark of prestige. AOP translates to Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in English and was formerly called AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. It is also the highest-ranking category. 

In France, the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) is a wine classification system for designating quality wines, spirits, and other products. 

When you drink an AOC or AOP Burgundy wine like Chablis Premier Cru Vaudésir by Domaine Durand, it feels sophisticated and maybe almost fancy. The reassuring truth is that while this is one of the priciest wines on the selection menu, its reputation for quality speaks volumes. 

An Appellation of Origin Protected (AOP) designation indicates that these particular grapes were grown in the specific vineyard site determined by French law, ensuring their authenticity and purity. The AOC (Appellation of Controlled Origin) designation considers all the nuances associated with wine, from where it's grown to how it’s made. 

These wines are strictly regulated by regional and federal laws to maintain their quality while also preserving cultural traditions. There are specific, agreed-upon methods that producers must follow regarding vine age and planting densities and maximum yields for wines produced from grapes grown in different regions within France.

Appellation d'Origine Controlee has always been a prestigious classification of wines. The process to get these licenses is rigorous but well worth the hard work. Every quality producer exceeds all standards required by AOC law and goes above and beyond for their products, which makes them so delicious!

Furthermore, there are two sub-categories that fall under AOP, and these rate vineyards in terms of the grapes’ quality:

a. Grand Cru

Grand Cru means "great growth" and is the top classification of French wine. It refers to a plot of land where grapes are grown or a specific chateau where the wine is made.

The first one mainly applies only to Burgundy, Champagne, and Alsace, while the second one is only for Bordeaux. Only 2% of the vineyards in Burgundy qualify for Grand Cru status. These wines are produced from low yields and can be indicative of quality wine production.

b. Premier Cru

Premier Cru means “first growth” and is the second-highest classification of wine in France. Nowadays, the term Premier Cru has two meanings. 

First is a vineyard plot of superior quality that can be found in Burgundy or Bordeaux regions. Secondarily, it's also used to describe an even higher class within Grand Cru classification like “Premier Grande Crus Classé” chateaus from the Bordeaux region, which are judged by their qualities relative to other wines classified at this level.

Nearly 12% of all Burgundy vineyards are given Premier Cru classification by French authorities. While many people may think it can't get any better from there because the highest ranking you could receive would be "Grand Crus," Burgundy Premier Cru wines are among the most highly sought-after wines in the industry.

2. IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée or Vin de Pays) 

IGP is the second main French wine classification, and it was previously known as Vin de Pays, meaning “country wine” or “wine of the land.” 

In English,  it means Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). IGP covers larger regions and has a much looser set of rules or restrictions, and so it can be made with any grape variety. 

This category centers more on geographical origin than tradition or style, giving winemakers a bit more freedom in their production process to create unique combinations. However, they are still required to satisfy specific requirements like acidity, sulfur levels, alcohol, and yield to ensure quality approval.

Many of these wines have the grape varieties and zones printed right on them, where other styles wouldn't do this. There are 74 geographic areas and 150 designations in all to explore. 

Some of the most exciting, creative examples include Pays d’Oc, Comté-Tolosan, and Val de Loire. That's why you can see wine labels that say, "Vin de Pays du Val de Loire."

3. Vin de France (or Vin de Table)

Vin de France is the replacement of the category Vin de Table, which means “table wine.” As its name suggests, it is considered the lowest or most basic French wine classification. 

It has no specific region assigned to it, and you're just getting a French label for your money. Grapes can come from any number of regions with lax standards, which means there's not much quality control. You aren't guaranteed anything except what country it’s coming from. 

For many winemakers, the “Vin de France” classification is the last resort. This means that they are stuck with wine not up to their standards. These wines get classified as Vin de France because either someone in charge violated an appellation law or grapes were added from another region of production without any regard for specific vineyard management techniques outlined by AOC regulations.

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How are French Wines Classified?

France has always had many different sorts of wine that span various classes, from cheap red wine varieties to luxurious vintage years with expensive price tags.

French wines are classified by the process used to produce them and their quality. They have an intricate system, but it's worth knowing because each classification reflects how much detail went into making it! 

A regional analysis is performed to determine if specific requirements are met for wines to be granted the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status. Then, quality checks are done every year to check if the wines are consistent with the quality required. Otherwise, they will lose the topmost classification or will get another lower status. 

These classifications will help you better understand which wines are best for your palate. For example, if a wine is labeled "Cotes du Rhone," it typically means that grapes have grown in France's Rhône Valley. 

This is where they were harvested by hand from vines aged between 15-40 years old before being fermented with skin contact (or without), then matured in oak barrels or trunks for up to 4 months before bottling.

How Many Types of French Wines are There?

Different wine types in wine glasses

Most of the wines you know are either named after the region they are from or the grape variety they are made of. And because there are so many, French wine can instead be grouped into five broad types: red, white, rose, sparkling, and fortified.

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1. Red 

Red wine is made with grape juice, skins, and seeds to create a stronger color and flavor. They usually ferment at warmer temperatures, creating an even richer taste with higher tannin levels that will make your mouth pucker, like in dry red wine.

Red wines have a deep color due to their pigments from harvesting without crushing the skins, allowing for flavor compounds such as anthocyanins and polyphenols to come out easier. 

Some of the most famous French red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah.

2. White 

White wine is made with the juice of both white and black grapes. The skins are taken off so that only clear grape juice remains. 

White wines have few tannins, and their acidic nature contributes to their fresh, crisp taste and tart flavor profile. They can be separated into dry or sweet, depending on how much sugar is in the wine. 

The flavor profiles can be altered depending on the process used, such as malolactic fermentation, which might leave your tongue feeling creamy! French white wines include Provence, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

3. Rosé

Rosé wine is one of the sweeter wines and can be made with red, black, or white grapes. It’s usually fermented for a shorter time, between 24-36 hours, to keep it from becoming too dry like most red wine varieties

Rosé also often has some residual sugar to create its sweet taste, making this drink perfect for those who enjoy fruity beverages but don't want all that alcohol!

The pink color comes from the grape skins and can be found in red or white wines. Rosé's low tannins make it perfect for summertime parties, as well as creating an excellent starter wine. 

Some are light, some have a punchy sweetness, while others offer more complex flavors like citrus or tropical fruit that you would find in white wine varieties. Some examples are Château Minuty Rosé Et Or, Provence, Gérard Bertrand Gris Blanc, and Clos Canarelli Corse Figari.  

4. Sparkling 

Sparkling wines are made by fermenting the grapes in a sealed environment. This produces carbon dioxide that makes it fizzy when opened. 

The best sparklers taste bright and fresh, fruity, sweet at times. Sparkling wines are celebratory drinks that get their name from the bubbles of carbon dioxide inside.

They are made from several different grape varieties, depending on the area they hail from. They can be dry or sweet, and most contain sugar to balance their high acidity levels. Perhaps the most famous sparkling wine is none other than Champagne.

5. Fortified 

These are basically like any other type of wine, except they have some extra spirits like brandy added in during fermentation which make them sweeter and more perfect for pairing up with desserts. 

Fortified wines are so full of flavor and are robust, making them also stand on their own. Among the best French fortified wines are dry Vermouth, Banyuls, and Maury.

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How to Read a French Wine Label?

French wine labels can be intimidating, but they are very informative and useful for a true connoisseur.  Understanding these labels can also tell you about a wine’s quality. Here is an example of French wine and its essential information shown on the label:

 French wine bottle label

1. Winery -  French wineries have a peculiar way of branding their product. Most bottles will contain an insignia at the top or bottom of their label. The winery’s name is often written in a large font, making it easy to find when looking at a bottle.

2. Grape Variety - The grape or varietal type is usually listed in the front, e.g., Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, etc. If there's no specific name, it will just have a generic label like "red wine.” The grape variety is perhaps the most crucial factor affecting what a wine will taste like.

3. Region - Most wine producers will include their country on their label. You can look for it at the top or bottom of the label; however, some may choose to display the specific region where the grapes are sourced. Some regions designate higher quality than others, and the designation of that vineyard will often reflect in its price point. 

4. Appellation Title - France's regions have their own classification system for ranking wines based on the quality and style it is known for producing. The appellation can give you insight into what varietals were used in that region under their regulations.

    5. Vintage - Wines usually display a vintage on the label, which is the year when the grapes were harvested for a particular wine. This is important to know how old and good the wine is.
      6. Producer & Bottler - The producer will only put prominent details about their process if bottling themselves directly at their estate because this differentiates them from other producers and makes that particular label more desirable in the marketplace. However, when a winemaker leaves an estate, the wines of that vineyard may have to change.
        7. Volume - Beside the ABV will be an indication of the wine’s contents. Usually, it will say 750ml, and some will have 1L.

          8. Alcohol Content - Alcohol proof, also known as Alcohol By Volume (ABV) and sometimes just listed as % Alc/Vol, refers to a measurement scale that compares how much ethanol in solution with water has been "converted" into pure alcohol through fermentation.

          9. Wine Quality - This is additional information to indicate that a wine has a higher quality, although it may not always be accurate. One example is "Reserve.” Even though it sounds fancy, its meaning changes depending on what is being talked about. Furthermore, there are no rules in place for reserve labeling, which is why some people tend to overlook this part of the label.

          Conclusion

          French wine is so broad and confusing but fret not; you can start by learning the French wine classifications and labels. 

          If you can identify a bottle of wine just from reading its label and understanding what each classification means for taste profile or grape type, then you are one step closer to being one of the best wine connoisseurs. So crack open a bottle and give yourself an excuse to brush up on these crucial French wine classifications and parts of a wine label.

          Which information did you find most interesting about French wine? Let us know in the comments!

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