For as long as human beings have loved, bought and stored wine, there’s been a desire to categorise it so that drinkers opening a jar (or later a bottle) know what to expect from its contents. |
We are all aware that no two wines are the same, so details like which kind of grape was used, where the grape was grown (its terroir), and when it was made are important in telling us not just about its flavour but also its quality.
Wine Labelling History
Believe it or not, noting down these crucial details is not a new thing – it stretches back as far as wine production itself. In fact, one of the earliest forms of labelling dates back to 1352 BC, on a jar found in the tomb of Tutankhamen which was used for wine and engraved with details about its contents.
The earliest known written label was a parchment attached to a bottle with a piece of string by the seventeenth-century Benedictine monk Pierre Pérignon. It detailed the contents of one of the earliest bottles of Dom Pérignon Champagne.
With the introduction of glass bottles and the increased ease of printing in the seventeenth century, it became usual for winemakers to add labels to their very best bottles. The idea was to let wine merchants and their customers know what they were getting for their money.
By the end of the nineteenth century it had become standard that most wines were sold with a rectangular label. Of course, the better the wine, the more the winemaker would use the label to boast about its pedigree. By the twentieth century it was common for pictures of the estate or local area where the grapes were grown to be depicted on the label.
When, in 1935, the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (AOC) was created to regulate classification of French wines, labels became an important way of providing proof to the purchaser of the quality of the wine.
How to Read the Label of French wines
There are five main facts to look out for on the labels of French wines: the producer, the region it’s from, the variety of grape or grapes, the vintage and the alcohol level.
So next time you’re travelling down one of France’s canals on a wine tour enjoying a chilled glass of white, or sitting at a table about to enjoy a rich red with your meal, take a moment to peruse the wine label in front of you. You’ll be surprised how much you could learn.
- The producer – who made the wine. On French wines it usually features prominently at the top or bottom of the label.
- Region – in which area the grapes were grown. The more specific the label is about the source of its grapes (ie. listing the actual vineyard rather than a larger region), the better quality it is likely to be.
- Variety – which grape was used to make the wine. Often, if the wine is made from a blend, the detail of the blend is not listed. If this is the case, check if there is an ‘Appellation’, as this will require the wine to adhere to the rules governing blends or grape varieties from that region.
- Vintage – the year in which the grapes were harvested. If you know about the differences in vintages then this can tell you quite a lot about the wine. A label without a vintage is probably made from a blend of grapes harvested in different years.
- Alcohol by Volume – not just about how strong the wine is. On French wines ABV can also give you an indication of quality, as only the best quality wines are above 13.5%.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury barge holidays in France and other great destinations. European Waterways' themed wine tours will introduce you to the best French wines while cruising the country's picturesque waterways. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
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