French wine labels can be a bit mystifying if you are not familiar with the language. However, with a few words and an understanding of what information might appear on the label, you'll have no problem cracking the code.
Note: It is important to understand from the start that the French do not categorize their wines according to the type of grape used to make them. So don't go looking for a bottle marked Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, the French labeling system indicates where the wine was grown and produced. (Don't despair though, it is pretty easy to catch on to which grapes are used in which regions and it's fun learning along the way.)
French Wine Classifications
French wine makers are required to mark their bottles with one of the four following classifications:
Vin de table - When a wine can't label itself otherwise, it labels itself as a vin de
table, or table wine. The wine could be made from a variety of grapes grown in different places. If it
is marked vin de table française, then all of the grapes were grown in France. Although they make up almost half of France's wine production, French table wines are generally considered inferior to the other categories of wine. They are also usually cheaper. Exceptions do exist though -- for example an excellent wine can be forced to label itself vin de table because it uses different types of grapes than those designated by the AOC (see below) for the area in which it is grown.
Vin de pays - These are wines that come from a specific area which will be noted on the bottle. For example, Vin de Pays d'Oc is wine that comes from the region of Oc. This is similar to an AOC, but the geographical areas are larger and the specifications for the growing, composition, and bottling of the wine less precise. In this category you can often find a quality wine at a low price. Vin de pays makes up roughly 20 percent of France's wine production.
Vin délimité de qualité supérieure (VDQS) - These wines make up only a very small part of France's production. The label VDQS has served as a sort of in between wine classification for a small group of wines that were not included in an AOC area, but adhered to stricter standards than those imposed on a vin de pays. This category is being eliminated and after 2011 should no longer appear on French wine labels.
Vin d'appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) - This will be noted on French wine labels as "Appellation (name of the terroir) Controlée", for example Appellation Bordeaux Controlée. This indicates that the wine was produced within a strictly controlled (and sometimes astonishingly small) geographical area, from specific types of grapes, and according to specified standards all set by the appellation for that name. The label AOC is supposed to guarantee you a certain quality, a guarantee that does not always hold up. These wines make up almost 30 percent of France's wine production and are generally more expensive than the other categories of wine.
Types of Wine
Here are some of the principal types of wines you will find bottled in France and a few other indications to get you started on reading French wine labels:
Aromatisé - A wine that has been flavored with something else, for example vin de mur, which is blackberry wine. These wines are usually drank as an aperitif in France.
Blanc - White wine.
Brut - Usually used with Champagne and sparkling wines, brut indicates a dry wine. Sec is one step closer to sweet, although still dry, and demi-sec is sweeter than both.
Doux - This means sweet.
Garde - A vin de garde is one that you need to let age in order to fully appreciate.
Moyenne garde indicates 5 to 10 years, longue garde indicates 10 to 20 years, and très longue garde is for when your toddler gets his PhD.
Gris - Essentially a rosé, but used specifically to describe rosés made from Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes.
Mono-cépage - Indicates that the wine was made from only one type of grape.
Mousseux - Indicates a sparkling wine. Champagne is perhaps the best known of the vins mousseux.
Issue de la viticulture biologique - Organically grown wine. The number of wines considered organic has augmented considerably in the last twenty years in France.
Primeur - A vin primeur is one that is ready to drink without any aging.
Rosé- Wine that is made from red grapes, but where the juice is separated from the grape skins during processing.