French wine laws and labelling
The main thing to understand about French wine is that they are all about terroir (pronounced ter-wha) – the place where the grapes are grown. Wines are generally labelled as the place where the grapes come from, rather than the variety or the property that makes them. To regulate this labelling system there are a complex series of rules and regulations to ensure that the integrity of the wine is maintained. All national wine laws in the European Union are based on the fundamental EU law, which divides wines into two categories: Quality Wines: QWFSR and Table Wines. The quality designation in France, based on the law of 1935 updated in 2012, was one of the first and most stringent.
Appellation d’Origine Protégéé (AOP) is the highest level of French wine classification. This new classification corresponds to the higher-quality AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wines of France. Representing about 50% of French wine production, AOP is the most important classification and the one usually encountered on bottles outside France. Each AOP has numerous rules, including:
- where the grapes can be grown
- permitted grape varieties
- viticultural practices (e.g. spacing, pruning, picking dates)
- maximum yield
- vinification methods
- the minimum alcohloic degree which cannot be assisted with chaptalisation — the process of adding sugar to aid the ferment.
Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) is an intermediate category replacing Vin de Pays. Here wines come from a specific region and are named as such. IGP laws are less strict than AOP, but there are rules specifying minimum ripeness and maximum yield and varieties can be applied. IGP wines make up about 20% of wine production in France.
Vin de France (table wine) A table wine category replacing the Vin de Table, but allowing for the grape variety and vintage to be indicated on the label. Wines at this basic level can come from multiple regions, grape varieties and even vintages. Chaptalisation is forbidden. These wines comprise about 30% of wine production in France.
Other quality indicators on a wine label
Grand Cru In Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace, this term on the label refers to the top-ranked vineyard – usually the most expensive and made for ageing.
Premier Cru (1er Cru) Refer to second-tier Burgundy wines from a single-identified vineyard, which will have specific vineyard characteristics.
Grand Cru Classe Refers to a Bordeaux classification made in the year 1857 of the 53 top estates ranked 1st to 5th Growth.
Cru Bourgeois Designates a marketing group in Bordeaux that has a quality charter membership and wines must pass a peer tasting.
Vigneron Independent A special mark to indicate that this is made at an individual estate as opposed to a cooperative.
Mis en Bouteille This means the wine is simply bottled at the estate as opposed to a cooperative or Negociant bottling. The grape grower is also the wine producer.
How to read a French wine label (AOP)
The French classification system used on wine labels will give you some level of comfort in that if you have liked a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, for example, in the past, then this one will be of a similar standard.
1. Producer name – the estate where the grapes are grown. This particular wine is made by the producer Domaine de Marcoux. The use of the Domaine name tells us this producer bottles their own wine on their estate (i.e. they are not a large cooperative).
2. Village where the grapes are grown. This wine is from the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
3. AOC/AOP: Châteauneuf-du-Pape. This means the wine meets the standards of the AOP. The fact that the wine is labelled Châteauneuf-du-Pape is significant. For Châteauneuf-du-Pape to be allowed under French Law, all the AOP/AOC standards must be met for that area: the grapes must be grown in the right area; they must be harvested at a specified level of ripeness; no addition of sugar is allowed; and the grapes must be of a classic blend for this particular region – the grapes grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are predominantly grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. The wine will also have passed a tasting panel to be declared suitable for the particular area
4. Vintage – the year it was bottled.
5. Alcohol percentage
6. Volume of wine.
What a French wine label doesn’t tell you
1. Region that the wine is from. This label does not tell you that the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is in the Côtes-du-Rhône.
2. Grape variety. This label doesn’t explicitly tell you the grape varieties used – but because it is labelled Châteauneuf du Pâpe, you know it will be predominantly Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in accordance with French AOP law.
Learn more about wine appellations and grape varieties in our five-minute French wine region guide.