Have you ever wondered what those French words on wine labels mean? Conveniently, I am fluent in both French and Wine languages, and I can help you understand those terms. Now you might say: “Why?! I only drink California wine!” While I respect your decision, the fact is that those terms are used on most wine labels, whether the wine is from California, South America, or Russia. Yes, they do make wine in Russia. After all, isn’t that why Gérard Depardieu moved there a few months ago?
France is the largest producer of fine wine in the world, after Italy and Spain (see wine fact below). Yes it’s true. Each region of France is different and they all proudly expose their own intricacies and uniqueness. Understanding and keeping track of all the appellations, classifications, and labeling rules of each region is a full time job, or quite a hobby. To understand a wine label, it is important to have a basic notion of the various classifications and terminologies currently used in the wine industry.
So I will translate those terms because I can, and also because you want me to. So without further ado, I offer you this French Wine Terms Translation chart. You’re welcome… or should I say: “pas de quoi” ; )
AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) : Controlled Designation of Origin, equivalent of AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the States. This classification acts as a consumer guarantee that a wine is of a particular quality and generally of a particular style.
AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée) : the European equivalent of the French AOC.
Blanc : White.
Brut : Dry.
Cave : Wine cellar.
Cépage : Varietal / Grape.
Château : Estate. Literally castle, but mostly refers to large country houses.
Coopérative : A cooperative or more likely, a syndicate of wine growers.
Côte/Coteaux : Slope of a hill/hillsides.
Crémant : A style of sparkling wine other than Champagne.
Cru : Growth, denotes status of a winery or vineyard.
Cru Classé : Classified vineyard.
Cuvée spéciale : Special blend or batch, AKA “reserve wine”. Term derived from the French word “cuve”, meaning vat or tank. Generally indicates a higher quality wine.
Demi sec : Medium dry.
Domaine : Estate.
Doux : Sweet.
Grand cru : Great growth. Highest possible classification for a French wine.
Grappe : Cluster.
IGP (Indication Geographique Protegée) : the European equivalent of the French VDP.
Mélange : Blend.
Méthode Traditionnelle : Traditional method of sparkling winemaking.
Millésime : Vintage.
Mis en bouteille au château/domaine : Bottled at the chateau/estate.
Mousseux : Generic term for sparkling.
Négociant : A merchant who buys grapes, juice or wine from growers and sells the wines under his own label.
Premier cru : First growth. Denotes land of superior quality, but falls short of a grand cru status.
Propriétaire : Estate or vineyard owner.
Raisin : Grape.
Récoltant : Grape grower. May also refer to the person harvesting the grapes.
Récolte : Harvest (may also refers to vintage).
Rouge : Red.
SGN (Sélection de Grains Nobles) : Selection of noble berries. Refers to wines made from grapes affected by noble rot, or botrytized. SGN wines are sweet dessert wines with rich, concentrated flavors. Some of the finest botrytized wines are literally picked berry by berry in successive “tries” (French for “selections”).
Supérieur : Wine with higher (superior) alcohol content as a result of being made fromriper grapes.
Tête de cuvée : Equivalent of “cuvée spéciale”, but this term is mostly used in the Sauternes AOC.
VDP (Vin de Pays) : Wine of the Land or Country Wine. This classification is below VDQS but above VDT and was introduced in the 1970s. It covers about 25% of French wine, most of which is intended for the domestic market.
VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) : A mid-level classification used between 1949 and 2012. This level is considered a stepping stone for appellations seeking promotion to AOC/AOP status. This category has been eliminated in 2012.
VDT (Vin de Table) : Table Wine. This is the lowest category of French wine and the least regulated. VDT wines can be made anywhere in France and have no official statement about region, vintage, or grape varieties. With the development of the VDP category, very little wine is now sold under the VDT title.
Vendange : Harvest.
Vendange tardive : Late harvest (generally for sweet wines).
Vieilles vignes : Old vines.
Vigneron / Viticulteur : Vine grower, Viticulturist or Vintner / grape grower.
Vignoble / Vigne : Vineyard.
Vin : Wine.
Proper nouns such as Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot, Chardonnay, Grenache, etc… are the same in French and English. Those do not translate for obvious reasons. Though the words are the same, we all pronounce them differently based on our origins. Our vocal expressions and hearing perception vary based on culture and location. Could it be the same with taste and how we all appreciate food and wine? That’s enough to make me ponder.
Wine fact: France produces an average of 4.5 billion liters per year and remains the largest wine producer in the world, along with Italy. The two countries have long sparred over the top slot, with the winner’s mantle switching back and forth from year to year. Most of the variability can be attributed to changes in growing conditions from year to year; wine grapes are notoriously susceptible to shifts in weather, very much like the one we are experiencing this year.
Both Italy and France consistently produce far more than the third-biggest producer, Spain (3.6 billion liters), who in turn produces far more than the fourth-biggest, the United States (2.2 billion liters).
Make sure to read Wine Stories [Part 1] for a short and fun article about wine perception. Like art, wine is and has always been a very subjective matter. The way it tastes in your mouth is entirely based on your mood and sensibility at that moment in time, and the way you describe your feelings is entirely based on your personality. philosophy, and experience.
French terms on wine labels can be quite complex and confusing… learn what they all mean from this related Wine Ponder article.