Daniel F. Iuculano
Contact: Dan Iuculano
Phone: (904) 302-8911
How to Read a French Wine Label
The Four Levels of French Wine Quality 1. Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AC or AOC) This is the highest level that a French wine can attain. 2. Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure (VDQS) Established in 1949 as a stepping stone to Appellation Controlee 3. Vin de Pays Established by decree in September 1979 as a result of an initiative on the part of the wine trade, to give added value to certain vins de table. 4. Vins de Table Forty per cent of the wine produced in France falls into this category. Vins de table can be produced anywhere in the country with no restriction as to the grape variety.
The French believe strongly that where a wine comes from is more important than what grape is used to make it. The concept of terroir, a combination of soil, climate and place, is uniquely French and is a major reason for confusion for US consumers looking for the name of a grape on the label.
You’ll find the name of the wine, often a chateau name, easily enough, as well as the name of the producer, and the vintage year. These are your three basics. They are often enough information for the consumer, and for purposes of this column, usually recommendations are keyed to these three factors. Some say that the producer’s name is the single most important item, for a producer of integrity is a guarantee of quality wine. That is often true, and I would sometimes recommend a village wine from a fine producer over a classified wine from a producer without an outstanding reputation. But the vintage year is also of first importance. (By the way, the vintage year is the year that the grapes were grown and harvested. The blending and bottling of the wine is usually done the following year.)
The alcoholic content is also given on the wine label. Usually, 12-13 percent is noted, although it can go to a maximum of 14 percent. Richness in wine does not equate with high alcoholic content, by the way. I have tasted wines with 11.5 or 12 percent alcohol that were fine beverages, rich and flavorful. I have also tasted wines at the 14% level that struck me as blowsy and not of high quality. So, increased alcohol in wine is not necessarily a plus. If the winemaker is purposely striving to manipulate an artificially high alcohol level in order to promote sales, it is probably a minus, and the winemaker should be in a different business.
Of importance is the area where the grapes were grown, variously referred to as the appellation, often rendered as appellation controlee or AOC. The name of the region will be given here, and that is a matter strictly regulated by French law. These area designations are trustworthy.