Understand French wine labels

When you buy a French bottle, only look at these 4 items above (by order of preference):

1- Appellation:

“Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC)  is the first thing you should look at.

There actually exist 3 categories of appellation:
– Vin de table
– Vin De Qualité Supérieure (VDQS)
– Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

“Vin de table” or table wine is supposed to be the lowest quality.
VDQS is the intermediate quality.
AOC is the best quality.

Note however you could find excellent VDQS wines, which have not been labeled AOC. In general, it is better to know someone who can recommend you this type of wine.

Very likely, you won’t find “Vin de Table” and VDQS wines in America. Actually, it looks like “Vin de Table” and “VDQS” appellation had a tendency to disappear these recent years, even in France. So, let’s take a closer look at the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée).

The AOC is always followed by a location, which indicates where the wine comes from. This is very IMPORTANT. This is actually the MOST IMPORTANT thing to consider.

Keep in mind this rule of thumb for AOC: the smaller is the AOC region, the better the wine is supposed to be.

For example, an “Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée” means that the wine comes from the Bordeaux area (which is big), while “Appellation Margaux Contrôlée” means that the wine comes from the village of Margaux (which is by the way very small!). So, when you buy an “Appellation Margaux Contrôlée”, you are sure the wine comes from Margaux. As for an “Appellation Bordeaux Controlée”, you are only sure the wine comes from Bordeaux, and an AOC Bordeaux can be a mix of different locations inside the Bordeaux area.

2- Millésime

Millésime stands for the year of production. The quality of wine varies greatly from one year to another. It is difficult to figure out which year is better than another. Some wine guides have year rankings, that could help you to pick the best year.

Once again, this is very difficult to figure out.  To my opinion, if you have picked the right Appellation (AOC), you are safe!

3- Mis en bouteille (bottling location)

Wines which are “mis en bouteille au château” (bottled at the château),  “mis en bouteille à la propriété” (bottled at the property), or  “mis en bouteille au domaine” (bottled at the domain) are supposed to be better than wines which aren’t. However, it is not automatically the case. It just reinforces the identity of the wine.

When you buy a French wine, don’t pay too much attention to this item. If it is there though, it strengthens your choice.

4- Wine Name

This is really the last thing to look at. It is actually just an indication. By the way, the term “Château” does not have any signification. It is not regulated. In other words, if you buy a wine with the term “château”, it means nothing.

To conclude, remember to check:
– The Appellation (Very important), and the size of the region (an “appellation Margaux” should be better than an “appellation Bordeaux”).
– The millesime. Less important, but it is still an indicator. Difficult to figure out if you don’t know the best years.
– “Mis en Bouteille au château”. It does not rhyme with quality, but just reinforce your choice.
– Forget the name of the wine. It has nothing to do with quality. It is just an indication.

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