Grapevine:An Attempt to Explain Those Confusing French Wine Labels

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

For many consumers, deciphering a wine label can be a daunting experience. Our natural tendency is to draw our own subjective, and superficial, conclusions concerning the quality and taste of a wine on a wine shop shelf, rather than more empirical research and inquiry. The end result, for some of us males is similar to that when driving to a new destination on instinct rather than GPS – we get lost.

Recently I focused on the variability, and therefore confusing, state of wine labels on wines produced in the United States, specifically California and Napa Valley. To add to the confusion, there are over 100,000 new labels approved each year by regulators.

But what of other wine-producing nations? Do regulations make it easier for consumers to understand the contents of a bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux? A Vouvray or Sancerre? The unequivocal answer is no. As difficult and disconcerting as it may be for consumers to identify the grape varietals in wines produced in the United States simply by reading a wine label, it is all the more difficult for European wines, where the label information may be sparse or nonexistent.

Or is it?

Most western European regulators view label disclosures quite differently than their American counterparts. Centuries ago, the western European winemaking industries focused almost exclusively on geography, with concomitant regulations focused on which grape varietals were permitted to be grown in each designated winemaking region.

Here are examples of the modern-day result of these influences and regulations on the wine labels of one western European wine nation: France.

If it says Burgundy on the label, it’s Pinot Noir – or Chardonnay. It was exclusively Pinot Noir until the eighth century when, as legend has it, Emperor Charlemagne’s wife complained that the Emperor’s beard was continually stained by the local Pinot Noir wine. From her influence was born the great Chardonnays we enjoy today that bear the Burgundy designation. In the ensuing centuries, each parcel of Burgundian land was graded for its quality. Today’s tiered classifications greatly influence price and reputation.

If it says Bordeaux on the label, it’s… The early Romans found it difficult to produce wines from a single grape varietal in the Bordeaux region. The varying annual climate and diverse soil dictated the plantings of several grapes, which were intended to be blended to produce a consistent wine each season. Five grapes dominate the region: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. A Bordeaux wine label bears the region and producer, but rarely the blended grape varietals, and even more rare, the percentage each grape contributes to the final product.

Other French regions are a bit less confusing. While historically not disclosing grape varietals on wine labels, regulators expect a consumer to be fully conversant on rules and regulations when selecting wines. Examples: If it says Vouvray on the label, it is produced exclusively from Chenin Blanc grapes grown exclusively in the Vouvray subregion. If it says Sancerre, it is produced exclusively from Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown exclusively in the Sancerre subregion.

With this knowledge in hand, the mystique begins to unravel – until you get to regions like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which permits any combination of up to 13 grapes, none of which are required to be disclosed.

Another example is the Champagne region. If it says Champagne on the label, it’s (typically) three grape varietals that are authorized: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, in any combination preferred by winemakers.

Are French wine labels more confusing than their counterparts in the United States by not disclosing grape varietals? Or less confusing because the disclosed region defines the undisclosed grapes authorized to be grown? Only by making a concerted effort can a consumer break through the codes of western European nations. But it is an exercise well worth the effort.


Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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