Learn About Wine With Me – White Bordeaux Wine Labels

This may or may not become a regular feature. I like the idea of writing through a specific topic from my class. It helps me better understand the lesson, allows me to stretch my writing fingers and maybe you, dear reader, will find what I have to write about interesting.  So I’ll start here, and we’ll see if other topics naturally present themselves in the same way. If you spot a factual error or you’re confused by something I’ve written, contact me: I’m itswinebyme on both gmail and twitter. I reserve the right to come back and re-edit this a million times, as I work through the learning process. 🙂 

I love buying wine. It gives me the same kind of happy excitement as when buying new shoes, or a new purse, or anything on a New York City shopping spree. So when the instructor of my WSET class pointed out a specific kind of White Bordeaux we should try, I immediately ran to MacArthur’s. One of their experts selected the label above and told me at $20/bottle it was a good entry level version of this particular wine to try. I haven’t opened it yet, but I figured this would be a good instructive opportunity to really understand the parts of a French wine label. I’m mostly writing this for my own learning purposes (and attempting to do so without my notes). So here’s what I think each element of this label tells us (starting at the top and moving to the bottom):

  • Grand Vin De Graves: These are grapes from Graves, an area of Bordeaux on the Left Bank. This combined with the specific appellation noted on the label (we’ll get to that a little later in this post) let me know what kind of grapes are in this wine.
  • ChĂĄteau Tour LĂ©ognan: This is the property where the grapes were grown, or possibly the name of the vineyard on a larger property (I’m not 100 percent). When I first started writing this, I was nearly convinced that this was also the brand or producer, but as I worked my way down to the bottom of the label, I realized my mistake. The prominence given to the vineyard or property in a French wine label is the opposite of what you see in the U.S. and other markets, where it’s the brand or the producer that’s seen as more important. But in France, it’s the terroir, which drives a wine’s importance, not necessarily who’s making it.
  • 2012: This is easy. It’s the vintage, or the year the grapes were harvested. The class instructor noted that 2013 was a disastrous year for Bordeaux, so hopefully this vintage won’t let me down.
  • Pessac-LĂ©ognan: Aha! The very reason I bought this particular White Bordeaux. It’s the premium appellation for White Bordeaux, which by definition should be a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and SĂ©millon grapes. As a consumer, I’m expected to know this (which is why reading French wine labels can be so difficult). Fortunately this particular bottle’s back label notes it’s 70 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 30 percent SĂ©millon. 
  • The bottom of the label includes Famille Perrin, PropriĂ©taire S.C.E.A. ChĂĄteau Carbonnieux, and unlike the first ChĂĄteaux written so prominently, this is the winemaker (aka producer, brand) of the wine. After some googling, I think this may also be the owner of the land, too. In theory, the owner could sell the grapes to other winemakers and they would have to label their wine with “ChĂĄteau Tour LĂ©ognan,” as well.

To make understanding French wine labels even more complicated, there are other quality indicators not listed on this particular wine, such as Cru ClassĂ©, which signifies the best wines, according to a classification system created by the French government in 1855. But that system only applies to Bordeaux, so if you’re looking at a French wine label from Burgundy and see terms such as Premiere Cru or Grand Cru, that’s a different designation combining a quality rating and ensuring the grapes are from a single vineyard. Does Cru ClassĂ© have to be single vineyard? That I’m not sure about. But since most Bordeaux wines (red and white) are blends, I’m guessing the answer is no.

I’m always uncomfortable about publishing posts that may have factual mistakes. But writing this has taught me there’s still quite a bit I need to learn. If that means buying and enjoying more wine, I’m not going to complain! 

Understanding France

I’m sure I don’t have to sing the praises too loudly for Wine Folly. Madeline’s brand of easy explanations combined with beautiful designs create stunning results. So I was delighted to quickly find this map she calls “French Wine Simplified” when searching for a quick way to reorient myself with the country’s geography.

As a California girl (both having grown up there and a preference in its wine), France has always baffled me. I studied Spanish in school, so trying to pronounce a French name while ordering has always turned into the dreaded pointing a finger at the menu. But despite my frustration, I have yet to be disappointed when sipping a French wine.

Very recently, I had the pleasure of tasting two new (to me) wines: Last night, a Pommard premier cru (pinot noir), and about a week ago a Brouilly Beaujolais (gamay). I’m glad that I already have an understanding that the prominent name on the label is the region and not the grape, while each region specializes in particular grapes. Understanding how different wine regions around the world create their labels is half the battle.

But the subregions are still tripping me up. Last night after tasting the Pommard, the sommelier asked for my thoughts. I didn’t know what Pommard was when I ordered it. The bartender explained it was another region in France and was a bit on the heavy/meatier side (I can’t remember the exact wording she used, but that’s how it translated in my head). So later in my discussion with the sommelier I felt very confident to let him know that I was picking up a lot of Burgundy in this wine. To which he replied, “It is Burgundy. Pommard is in Burgundy.” Le sigh.

(Wine Folly also has this excellent map of Burgundy, which I’ll be studying closely today.)