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French Wine… Why can’t I find a “merlot”?

French versus American wine bottle labeling

Today I thought I would share some information about wine labels.  Specifically the differences for French wine versus American wine (and most other regions).  I know many people who shy away from French wines because they are unfamiliar and when they search for something recognizable they strike out.  To fix that the first obstacle is understanding the labels on the bottle.  So let’s break this down first before we go any deeper.

The American Label

American wine label
Standard label for a California wine

In the US the winery name is usually the most prominent on the label.  Then the grape varietal used to make this wine.  The year of the harvest and then in much smaller print on the label the region/county where the grapes are grown and harvested.  An example (see above): Frei Brothers Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.  In this case the additional term of “Reserve” is added to designate that the winemaker finds this wine to be of superior quality based on the grapes used to make this wine.  As the label states this wine is all cabernet sauvignon grapes and the taste profile will reflect what you would expect for a cab.

Opps… caveat – As a general rule in the US in order for a wine to be designated by the varietal name it must be at 75% of that varietal grape.  Oregon is an exception where it must be 100%.  Also most higher end wines will be 100% of the varietal as well.

Seems very clear with very little guess work with regard to American wine.

About the French

french wine label
Standard French wine bottle label

Labels on wines imported from France you see some of the same information but not all.  Similar to the US wine label you will find the winery/vineyard prominent on the label.  Next most prominent designation is the region or as they say in France the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée). The AOC is a classification/certification for a region.  All AOC wines must hold to a rigorous set of clearly defined standards.  Note:  There are French wines called “vin du pays” – translated “country wine” which are more what we would think of as table wine or everyday wine.  These wines are a step below AOC wines.

The governing body stresses that AOC certified regional products will be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas. The wines must further be aged at least partially in the respective designated area. Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled geographical indications if it does not comply with the criteria of the AOC.  As you can see AOC wines are more tightly regulated in France.

Why AOC standards?

It is based on the concept of terroir.  Think of terroir as the regional habitat and complexities of the land, water and air specific to that place, the traditional manner in which it is farmed that affect a crop’s growth, ultimately providing a specific character or style that one should expect for a wine grown in that region.  This is an acknowledgment of quality, tradition and assurances that a wine from a specific AOC will reflect its regional qualities that make this wine what it is.

So why terroir over varietal?  First and foremost it is how it has always been done.  There is the tradition of blending varietals to create a signature style that brings out the unique characteristics of wine made from grapes in a particular region.

For most AOC wines, if grape varieties are mentioned, they will be in small print on a back label.

french wine back label

Ok, that was a long explanation but important because American wines do not have these rigid regional standards.  Next is the vintage year and where it is bottled.  An example from above is Domaine du Vieux Lazaret Châteauneuf-du-Pape  2013 .  Where it is bottled and the winemaker is listed below that.

Side by Side Comparison

To help you understand AOC as it compares to American wine allow me to use the two above labels and lay out the similarities side by side.

American = French

Frei Brothers (brand name of the winemaker)  = Domaine du Vieux Lazaret (name of the vineyard)

Cabernet Sauvignon  = not shown on front label (look on back label to see what varietals are included and at what %)

Alexander Valley, Sonoma County = Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Both display vintage year

Bottled not shown on front label = Bottles on domain or estate

(US Winemaker already listed above)= Vignobles Jérôme Quiot S.A.S. (winemaker)

French wine specific for American consumption

Now you may have found french wines with the varietal shown on the front label?  These wines are bottled

french 4 USA
French wine bottled for internal wine markets

for the international market and can not be sold in France as it does not meet French labeling requirements.  The label to the right is a French sauvignon blanc.  Named Kiwi Cuvée Bin 086 and it being a sauvignon blanc, my first assumption would be that this wine was made in a new world style; more specifically of New Zealand with grassy and/or grapefruit notes in the nose and taste profile.  Upon tasting this wine my assumptions proved to be true.  Should you like New Zealand style  sauvignon blanc wines this is a great buy at roughly $10.00 a bottle.  You will find this wine is available throughout the Total Wine chain but is also available at select stores online.



Bottom Line

If you are a Merlot drinker look for wines where Merlot listed as the primary grape in the blend.  If you drink Chardonnay (an exception) you will be happy to know a white Burgundy is made with Chardonnay grapes only. There are over 60 grape varietals grown in France.  Have a favorite varietal? Look for that grape on the back label.  Of course, different regions have different traditions and environment which will also affect the overall characteristics of those wines.

I hope this tid bit of information will take some of the confusion out of French wine.  Now start exploring one of the oldest wine regions in the world.





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