How to read a wine label

Wine labels 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

The label will clearly state, either on the front or the back, “Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée” or “Appellation Bordeaux Supérieur Contrôlée.”

It 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 varieties, soil, climate and vintage.

Climbing Up The Quality Ladder

In France, if AOC wines are at the top of the hierarchy, it helps to know a little more about the other quality levels. The first level is vins de table or table wines. The grapes for these wines can come from anywhere in the country – these are simple, fruity wines. Next are 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

The blend of grape varieties is not typically mentioned on the front label, and appearing more and more often on the back, but most wines in Bordeaux are made using a blend of 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 variety brings something to the mix and complements the others. Bordeaux winemakers can choose among these official grape varieties (see “Varieties & 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 some 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 varieties.

“C” for Color

There are four predominant colors of Bordeaux wine: white, rosé, clairet (a deeper-hued rosé, almost a light red), and red. These colors are mentioned on the label as an AOC.

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/light red, 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.