How to read a label

Imagine you are in a wine store and you want to try a new bottle of wine, but you have nothing to go by, outside of the label. What exactly does the label tell you about the wine?

Well, it can actually give you quite a bit of good information to help you make the right decision. But don’t let a little French scare you. While it may seem complicated at first, buying Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines is quite simple.

Start at the beginning and think about the A, B, C’s: appellations, blend and color.

“A” for Apellations

Let’s begin with the “A” component of our ABCs, the appellation or AOC. The label will clearly state, either on the front or the back, “Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée” or “Appellation Bordeaux Supérieur Contrôlée.”

It looks complicated, until you cut it down to size. It just means the appellation (area) where the grapes come from (origin) has strict regulations (it’s controlled). These controls result in better grape growing and winemaking practices. AOC is the highest level that a French wine can obtain, and represents not only a geographic origin, but a high standard of quality.

AOC wines always have a vintage year on the label, either on the front or back, designating that the wine was made only with grapes harvested in the autumn of that year.

In addition to strict controls in the vineyard, cellar and geographic delimitations, an appellation d’origine contrôlée wine is also blind tasted by wine professionals to judge its “typicity,” taking into consideration the varietals, soil, climate and vintage.

Climbing Up The Quality Ladder

Let’s step back a moment to discuss quality. In France, if AOC wines are at the top of the hierarchy, it helps to compare with the different quality levels. The first level is made up of vins de table or table wines. The grapes for these wines can come from anywhere in the country – these are simple, fruity wines. Above these are the vins de pays, which are, again, simple wines, but bearing some general taste attributes from a certain region within France. The region’s name will appear on the wine label.

“B” for Blend

Now, for the “B” component of our ABCs, or the blend. It is not typically mentioned on the front label, and appearing more and more often on the back, but all wines in Bordeaux are made using just a few grape varietals, with Merlot at the top of the list for reds (especially on the Right Bank), followed by Cabernet Sauvignon (more on the Left Bank) and Cabernet Franc. Each grape varietal brings something to the mix and complements the others. Bordeaux winemakers can choose among these official grape varietals (see “Varietals & Blends” under “Bordeaux Wines 101”) to produce their own unique blend, their own style of wine. The blend may vary in different vintages, as the objective is to create a wine in perfect balance in its taste, texture or “mouth feel” and acidity. There are a few single-varietal wines being produced in the region today, using Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc or Malbec, for example, but in general, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur wines are blends of two or three, sometimes four varietals.

“C” for Color

And for the “C” component of our ABCs – let’s not forget the color. There are four predominant colors of Bordeaux wine: white, rosé (and clairet, a deeper-hued rosé), and red. And these colors are mentioned on the label.

Here is more detail on what you may see on a label and their meanings:
Bordeaux Blanc – dry white
Bordeaux Rosé – pale, dry rosé
Bordeaux Clairet – a deeper-colored rosé, still dry, with more fruit and body
Bordeaux Rouge – dry red, medium to full-bodied

Other Info

Other than that, you will see the château or producer name on the bottle along with other legal requirements, such as the country designation “Product of France”; the alcohol level; the vintage (the year the grapes were harvested); and more.

Here are a few pointers to pay attention to:

Vintage: A vintage tells you the year that the grapes were grown and harvested. A good majority of wines at the store are meant to be drunk young, one-to-two years for simpler whites and rosés and within five years for more complex whites and reds, so be sure to enjoy their lively, fresh fruitiness.

Alcohol content: A label will reveal what percentage of alcohol is in the wine. You will find many American wines have levels at 14% or above. Bordeaux wines, in comparison, have alcohol levels more around the 12.5%-13.5% range. Lower levels of alcohol and excellent acidity make them pair wonderfully with all types of cuisine.

Mis en bouteille au château: This is a sign of quality, and literally means that the winemaker grew their own grapes, vinified the wine, and then bottled it at the château.