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Wine Label Words: French Wines

February 15, 2011

Next in the series is French wines. Understanding French wine labels is really about understanding French wine regions. That’s because knowing the region will help you to know the grape and more importantly, the style – of the wine.

To be thorough, there is a French wine hierarchy based upon quality and similar to other European wine laws, many if which are modeled after the French laws. Unlike in Germany, we don’t need to memorize terms from a ripeness chart.

The main point to know about French wine laws is the AOC system, which is for Appellation d’Origine Controlée, which means ‘Appellation of Controlled Origin.’ This system proves the origin of agricultural products, from cheese and butter to chicken and honey, but is most widely used for wine. The easiest thing to know about the AOC system is, if it comes from a named region, then the minimum quality standards are good.

If a wine falls outside of a named region, or fails to follow the rules for the region it hails from, then the wine would be a Table Wine (or Vin de Table in French). Although plenty of this type of wine is produced, we see very little of it here (no sense in shipping really inexpensive wine across an ocean). The next level up is Country Wine (Vin de Pays). A lot of the inexpensive French wine would fall under this category.

Now we have Appellation Controlee, or AC wines. Generally, the more specific the place, the better the quality. But how do you know one town name (village in French parlance) from another, or a town name as opposed to a region name or even a vineyard name? Unfortunately, there is no short-cut. To best understand French wine regions, there is a certain amount of memorization that comes with the territory. The great news is, drinking the wines of a region is the best way to explore and learn about that region (short of traveling and seeing the region firsthand). Who knew studying would ever be this fun?

French wine regions

Ok, let’s focus then on a quick tour of the named regions around France and the grape varieties, styles or some sub-regions of each.

Loire Valley:
This is a long valley just south of Paris that stretches from about the geographic center of the country to the Atlantic coast. Starting in the western edge, we have a region that is best known for it’s sauvignon blanc. There are a few place names that you may already be familiar with or are likely to see most often in your local store, like Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé.

Loire Valley wine regions

In the central part of the valley, we start to see the red wines of Chinon from cabernet franc and whites wines from chenin blanc. The most commonly seen place name from here is Vouvray, followed by Saveniérres. Whites from chenin blanc from the Loire Valley can be dry, off-dry or sweet. still or sparkling. Getting to know a few producers is the best way to know what style of wine you’ve found.

At the end of the valley, near the shores of the Atlantic ocean is a part of the Loire called Muscadet. The wines from here are wonderful seafood wines made from an offspring of chardonnay. The variety is called melon de bourgogne (emphasis on the second syllable in melon), or just melon for short. The best examples of these are made by allowing the wines to sit “on the lees,” which are the yeast cells that fermented the wine and then settled on the bottom of the tank. Leaving the lees in with the wine, and especially with occasional stirring to really mix the lees with the wine, imparts a wonderfully creaminess on both the texture and flavor.

This is a much simpler region to get to know for the sole fact that this is the only French wine region that puts the grape variety on the label. The trick to finding good Alsatian wines is to get to know the producers. So, try a few out and remember the producers whose wines you liked.

The other key point to Alsace is to remember that Alsace is a cool region (it’s pretty far north) and right up against Germany geographically. Historically, Alsace has swapped between French and German ownership. So, it’s no surprise to see a lot of similar varieties between Germany and Alsace. And names that sound more German than French. like Hugel.

Two other things to know: the signature bottle for the region is the tall, slender flute. And the region is long and slender, with two areas (one North and one South), but it isn’t a necessity to learn the geography of the region to understand the wines. Enjoy it, because that is a rarity in Old World wines!

The varieties you’ll find, lightest bodied first, are: Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Noir.


Ok, we’re doing really well here so far, but this has already gotten quite long. Take some time to review these couple of regions we’ve encountered so far. And you remember the best way to learn about wine regions, right? Go drink some wine! Find some Loire Valley and Alsace wines and we’ll finish the rest of the French wine regions in Part II.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Tania Weich permalink
    July 26, 2011 3:47 am

    A great article, simply written with a wealth of information. Thank you.

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