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Understanding a French Wine Label

The French wine region of Burgundy may be small in size but it is unparalleled in its ability to produce some of the most sought after and exclusive wines enjoyed the world over. However, this prestigious reputation can cast fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned of wine professionals due to its complex regulations and the unique characteristics of the French wine label. While this region is home to some of the most expensive wines in the world, there are also many options that are as affordable as they are beautiful. For this reason, understanding these unique labels is an important first step in experiencing the wonders of Burgundy wine.

Before we begin…

In order to appreciate the differences between an Australian and a French wine label – in this example a Burgundy wine label – it is important to understand some of the fundamental components of the French winemaking industry. 

French wine is all about terroir (pronounced ter-wha), the place in which the grapes are grown that gives the wine its true character and identifiable trait. It encompasses a myriad of conditions including the soil, altitude, elevation, temperatures and so on that make up the particular vineyard or appellation. Depending on which region or appellation the wine is produced in, the wine will provide a different wine tasting experience. For this reason, a French wine will show the region on the label in comparison to Australian wines which are labelled by their particular variety.  

In Burgundy, there are two main grape varieties legally able to be grown, red wines are Pinot Noir and white wines are Chardonnay. 

While this system is far more involved than the one we have here in Australia, newcomers need not feel nervous as it doesn’t take long to soon learn some of the Burgundy basics. 

1. The Producer (Negociant v Domaine)

Quite simply, this part of the label will tell you who made the wine. For this bottle, the producer is our very own Marchand & Burch, a joint venture between Howard Park owner Jeff Burch and Burgundian winemaker, Pascal Marchand. Traditionally in Burgundy, grapes were grown by farmers and made by Negotiant houses who purchased their grapes. This system still abides but it is complemented now by a large and growing number of family owned Domaines who grow grapes in the vineyards they own before making and bottling wine from this fruit under their own label.

2. Vineyard Name

The vineyard name is the vineyard in which the grapes were harvested. 

Touring the historic and picturesque wine villages of the Cote d’Or in Burgundy is one of those touchstone experiences for lovers of fine wine and particularly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The cobbled streets and weathered stone buildings of these unassuming communes house historic family Domaines with an attachment to the surrounding vineyards that often stretch back several centuries.

The vineyard boundaries of each village are clearly defined, both for legal reasons to conform to the strict laws required for the production of AOC Village wines, but also to protect and enhance the unique attributes and flavour characteristics that make each wine from the 44 recognised villages of Burgundy a unique proposition, expressive of a particular terroir or sense of place.

3. Appellation/Vineyard classification

Appellation is the focal point of the label, as it  Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC/AOP), – or ‘controlled designation of origin’ as it is known in english – which is the French certification granted to certain wines under the auspices of the government bureau known as the I‘Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO). This framework was started in 1937 and is based on the concept of terroir, providing rules that apply to every aspect of wine production. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, the grape varieties that certain wineries can grow and utilise, the minimum alcohol level in the wine they create, the aging requirements and even the planting density in the vineyard. As the most important classification in the French winemaking industry, approximately 50% of wine production is represented by the AOC.

There are 4 levels of the AOC in Burgundy, which indicates the quality of the wine you can expect to enjoy when you buy such a bottle. Ranging from highest quality to lowest, these levels are:

  • Grand Cru – 2% (Produced from the small number of the best vineyard sites in the Cote d’Or)
  • Premier Cru – 12% (Wines produced from specific vineyard sites that are also considered to be of high quality however not as well regarded as Grand Cru)
  • Village Wines – 36% (Village wines are produced from a blend of different wines from vineyards within the boundaries of one of the 42 villages)
  • Bourgogne AOC (Bourgogne Rouge, Cremant etc) 50% (This AOC refers to wines that are made from anywhere throughout the region and represent a more simpler wine intended for immediate consumption, within three years of vintage).

Such meticulous management of a single industry may seem overwhelming, but the geographic label implies what winemaking regulations were in play and can therefore serve as a guide for consumers.

4. Vintage

The year in which the grapes were harvested.

5. Quality Level

The appellation on a wine label is the ultimate indication of the quality you can find within a bottle of wine. However, most French wine labels include a flourish that reiterates this information. On our label, the statement “Grand vin de Bourgogne, Wine of Cote D’or”, while not a legal indication of the quality, simply demonstrates that the wine was made in the Cote d’Or of the renowned winemaking region of Burgundy.

6. Cote d’Or

Translating to ‘golden slopes’, the Cote d’Or is located in the very heart of Burgundy and is split into two main sections – the Cote de Nuits in the north, and the Cote de Beaune in the south. The north is known for its incredible harvesting of Pinot Noir and other red grapes.

Take the time to browse our Marchand & Burch collection online to experience the wonders of delectable wine created in a world-renowned region.