Reading a Bordeaux wine label is similar to deciphering a code. There are many clues about that wonderful French wine in the bottle, but trying to figure out the label’s messages can be daunting. Fortunately once you know the tricks to decoding the information you can uncork Bordeaux’s deepest secrets. All it takes is a quick primer in knowing how to make sense out of these Old World Wine labels and you’ll be buying and enjoying French wines with confidence.
Getting to know your Bordeaux
Most wines produced in the New World (think the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) have user-friendly labels. Each wine is identified by its grape varietals such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, or Pinto Grigio. In contrast, Old World wines tend to be classified by region rather than type. Unless you are very familiar with the types of grapes from a particular wine region it can be difficult to know exactly what you are getting. Some wine makers are adapting to the New World label style but conversion is slow in this area steeped in centuries old traditions.
What grapes come from Bordeaux?
The Bordeaux Region features five types of red grapes that are often blended together including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. White grape varietals tend to be dry and are great for aging; Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle (Muscatel) are some of the more familiar. Things get more complicated when each vintner makes a combination of these grapes in wine production. The wine label will not divulge this information readily and it is up to the consumer to learn what types of grapes are used in a particular wine.
How are Bordeaux wines classified?
Since 1855, Bordeaux wine makers have followed the classification systems called the Wine Growths of Medoc, Graves, and Sauternes-Barsac. Later in 1955 the St. Emilion classification was added, followed in 1959 by the Graves and Cru Bourgeois counterparts. Each of these systems assigns a chateau or estate to one of five quality levels. But most causal wine drinkers do not have the time or inclination to study all of that information and rely on the label to help them make their selections.
What then does the Bordeaux label reveal?
The Bordeaux label will list the following information. Since labels can vary in appearance, your bottle at home may not contain these clues in the same order. But you should still be able to understand the mysteries behind the words.
*The word Bordeaux itself will appear on the label.
*The vintage year should be clearly stated, and 85% of the wine must be from that year’s production.
*The name of the estate or chateau may be accompanied by a logo but not always; the wine may also be produced by a ‘negociant’ or cooperative which means a blend of wines from several producers who must meet consistent levels of quality.
*The estates classification such as the earlier mentioned 1855 Medoc will be listed but not all labels will indicate whether that estate is a first or fifth quality level.
*The appellation portion will give a hint as to the type of wine and the grapes used; ‘Appellation Bordeaux Controlee’ is listed on the 2005 Christian Moueix Merlot. Not all labels are as forthcoming with the varietals, and you may still be unsure of the complete grape blend information.
*The bottling may have been done by the chateau or estate or elsewhere and this information will be included.
*Finally the alcohol content (often 13%) and volume (750 ml for example) are noted.
This quick primer is not meant to replace the painstaking research required when becoming familiar with Old World Wine regions. But knowing a few basics can help make it easier for you to read a Bordeaux wine label and become more familiar with the secrets of your next bottle of French Bordeaux wine.
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