Deciphering a French Wine Label

Deciphering a French Wine Label

Row of vintage wine bottles

France: The Land of Opportunity; The Best Place on Earth; The Red Planet!  Oh, no, wait, I’m thinking of America, British Columbia and Mars….

France does have one thing going for it, even if it isn’t necessarily the country’s motto (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, for those who are unaware): French wine is unbelievably good.  So good, in fact, that French wine travels the world and is some of the most sought after liquid in the world (just behind clean water and reliable fossil fuels).  Oftentimes, however, wine buyers the world over are confused by what appears to be intentional obfuscation when it comes to a French wine label.  I went to the internet and found one that should be fairly common across wine stores in America:

Chateu Lynch Bages

Now, granted, finding this particular vintage will likely prove a difficult, and expensive, endeavor.  Just look for the 2012 vintage if you’re interested in this absolutely beautiful Bordeaux.  

Just looking at the label, you can determine quite a bit about the wine, but some of what you can determine requires previous knowledge.  France, like many old world countries (“old world” is defined ((by me)) as wine-growing/making regions of the world that have been producing wine for over 400 years) tends not to put the grape(s) that go into the bottle on the label.  Sadly, the best ways to know what’s in this bottle is a) email me at [email protected] with the heading “Wine Question”, b) check the internet, or c) ask your local wine store personnel.  

Some useful information:  Pauillac is a wine-growing region in France, specifically located on the left bank of the river Gironde in the region called the Haut-Medoc (or “upper” Medoc).  The dominant grape here is Cabernet Sauvignon, but up to 5 varieties grow in the region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. A typical “Bordeaux blend” will incorporate 3-5 of these grapes.  

Chateau Lynch-Bages, the estate where the wine originated, is what you would call Grand Cru, and it says it right on the label.  Grand Cru is the best of the best coming out of that region, and “Grand Vin” is a notation explaining that they are the top house putting out a top wine.  Lynch-Bages is not alone in that status.  Other great houses, such as Ch. Lafite-Rothschild or Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, also hold Grand Cru status.  

Additionally, you can see the vintage of the wine written under the seal which reads “Mis en bouteille au chateau” which means that the wine was made and bottled at the estate.  The small text at the bottom gives information about the owners.  “Cazes” is the family which currently holds the estate, and they are largely responsible for the upsurge in interest in French wine in the Chinese market.

The good news about French labels is that some houses are modernizing their labels to reflect a global market’s interest in the wines.  More and more often now, you can find French wine labels that read “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Merlot” or “Chardonnay”.  Keep looking and trying wines.  The most important thing to remember is that it isn’t what’s inside the bottle that matters: what matters is your personal enjoyment of the wine.