When it comes to buying wine, being confronted with a sea of wine bottle labels in a shop can be daunting. If not incredibly confusing. Do you go for a classic looking label? (Implying it is a better wine?) Minimalist style or busy with information?
There are far too many choices. And to my mind far too much information. But then I learned a trick.
When in France
When I first moved to France, I was confronted with just this issue. I was tasked with buying some wine whilst out grocery shopping. And in France the wine section of a supermarket can be very, very big. There were all sorts of labels. All sorts of prices. And I had no clue how to choose.
I ended up choosing randomly. Then brought the wine home. And my wine making partner went ‘blech’. Well, actually, he didn’t as we rarely had a bad (not counting a rarely corked) wine here in France. But they certainly do vary. And price is definitely not always an indicator.
Give me a Clue
As someone who studied wine, I asked my partner for a clue. Given such a plethora of choice, how do I choose a good wine? He gave me this tip.
On the wine bottle label it has to say where it is bottled. In French it looks like: ‘Mis en bouteille au…’ or ‘bottled at’. The trick is to look for these words and then what comes after.
- Mis en bouteille au Chateau / Bottled at the Chateau
- Mis en bouteille au Domaine / Bottled at the Winery Domain
- Mis en bouteille à la propriété / Bottled by the Owner
These three phrases are the easiest key to finding a decent if not excellent wine from France. Why? Because the owner of the wine made the wine himself at his own winery.
You can literally ignore all the other information.
The other Mis en Bouteille
The three phrases above are not the only ones to be seen on wine bottle labels. There is another, much more common, ‘mis ‘en bouteille’ you might see:
- Mis en bouteille pour… / Bottled for … – insert name of bottling plant here.
This means the wine was taken from the domain and made elsewhere. Sometimes this could be a local Co-op. Sometimes a wine making factory. Yes, such a thing exists.
Sure, the owner or chief wine maker for the domain will probably be involved in the making of the wine, even when made else where. And there are all sorts of rules in place to make sure Wine A is not mixed with Wine B. But ultimately and simplistically, it means that the grapes have travelled further and will not have the same care and attention as those made on premises.
These are not necessarily to be ignored, but they muddy the waters if you do not really know your French wines, and who makes what where. So, if like me, you want to keep it simple, stick with the bottled ats rather than the bottled for.
Wine Bottle Labels
But what about the rest of the wine bottle label? The design, the information, and that smells like cat wee description? (Okay most likely not specifically that last one as it is not the best for marketing, but it really is a thing.)
The design of the label is just marketing. Oldy worldy style usually means many generational domain taking pride in its generations. Something fun and funky, think new winery or new head of the winery. Truly weird, that’s about getting your wine out there to be seen. None of which tell you if it is a good wine.
As for the ‘information’ on the label, that is full of requirements. Lots and lots of requirements. And each winery will try to compress this into as few words as possible.
No matter where a wine is bottled there is some information that has to be included on its label(s): Location, name of winery, where it is bottle and alcohol content, amongst a few others depending on the country.
The exact information may vary depending on if it is made for export or not. For example, location might be France if it is potentially going to be exported. Or it might be Chablis if it will sell only in France. (The latter gets into the uniquely French world of Terroir – more on that in my What is Terroir write up.)
Country of origin as well as a name and address of the bottler (eg that mis en bouteille thing), and importer (if being imported) are the pieces of information that have to be included on the front label. The rest can be included on the front or an additional back label if desired.
Wine Bottle Labels in France
France runs amok with regulations. And the wine bottle label is no exception. Like above it has to include the name of the Winery name, where it is bottled, as well as the the vintage or year it was made, and the appellation.
The appellation is the wine region. France puts this on rather than the grape variety, as often a region will blend varieties of grapes. And this like much else in the wine industry is also controlled. (Have a read of my article on Understanding the AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, for more on this.)
There is a long list of other information that might be included on a French label. Some are specific to type of wine, others more generic. From ‘Vieille Vignes’, grapes from old mature vines, to ‘Clos’ a term used for grapes from a vineyard that is completely enclosed by a stone wall. Yes, it can be that specific.
In other words
The key is, don’t worry. Almost all the information on a wine bottle label is really meant for exporters, importers, customs or government officials. And the odd wine snob.
But for us mortals, when we have to choose a wine amongst a sea of wine labels, just look for those three phrases above. I have personally found that it really works. It narrows the field of choice to a more manageable selection. And honestly I have never had a bad wine. I have had some interesting wines. Wines I may not buy again. But the majority of the time, I have enjoyed a unique glass each time.
If you are like me and you like wine, or know someone who does, I can recommend checking out My Shop. I like to stock it with some unique wine gifts. Here’s a taste…
Simply click on an image to see more.