Reading a Bottle of Wine

Philip Reddaway
Philip Reddaway

The French attitude to labelling wine strikes me as absurdly blinkered. Faced with continued domestic over-supply, dynamic New World competition and a government determined to control what they see as an unhealthy beverage, one might have thought the industry would have got the bit they can control (it’s just sticking the right info on the bottle, after all) done to perfection. Not so. Lavishly, they adhere to tradition. By law AOC (Appellation d’Origin Controlée) wines can’t mention the name of the grape variety the wine is made from on the front label. Instead, with the noble exception of the Alsace region (not really very French) you need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of French geography and viticulture to know, for example, that when it says Pouilly Fumé on the label it’s Sauvignon blanc, when Pouilly Fuisse it’s Chardonnay.

To give this a bit of perspective: when my parents first started drinking wine in the early 1960s they chose from well-known regions such as Chianti or Rioja, or the early wine brands such as Mateus rosé or the Spanish Hirondelle. Possibly the only varietal they would have selected was a German Reisling, but as often as not they would have used the term “hock”. Later on, driven by the New World producers, wine became increasingly marketed under varietal names. Australian wine became synonymous with Chardonnay, Shiraz and Semillions, New Zealand with Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, California with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Italy with Pinot Grigio, all prominently displayed on the front label. At the same time, more and more brands emerged from Jacob’s Creek to Yellowtail, helping to make choosing a bottle that much easier for the novice.

Yet the French persist in keeping it all a mystery. By law they can tell you practically anything they like on the back label but very few seem to take the opportunity. The thinking seems to be “if you don’t know enough to know the varieties that have gone into this wine, do you really know enough to appreciate it?” Arrogant or what?
There are, of course, honourable exceptions.

Philippe Gimel Front LabelMy maverick friend Philippe Gimel, who makes sublime concentrated Ventoux wine based predominantly on Grenache in a cherry processing shed in neighbouring Malaucene, is exemplary when it comes to label design. His front label is pared down to an outline image of the Ventoux mountain whose climate and geology is so influential on his wines, plus the name of the Domaine and his own name. Clean and striking simplicity. Everything else appears on the back, and I do mean everything – location, soils, climate, yield, maturation, precise percentages of the blend, alcohol level, cellaring and pouring advice, web-site url; even Philippe’s Facebook and Twitter account details for those with a thirst to know more. He even has the practical good sense to consult me from time to time on his use of English – he must be the only French winemaker to ask for help from an Englishman! If you are curious to try his wines they will shortly be available at the Nottingham-based merchant Gauntleys:

Philip Reddaway runs La Madelene Rhone Wine Holidays. email:

One thought on “Reading a Bottle of Wine”

  1. I just dropped in on your article, and I feel like saying something about French attitude to wine, which is completely different from countries of “non-wine” historical tradition. The Romans, and then a lot of people, tried different grape varieties on different soils (the famous “terroir”), but for many centuries we never thought about a wine according to its primitive origin. A wine is made by the soil, with all the mineral and vegetal ingredients, by the exact type of climate, sun, wind, watering, by the exposition and the altitude, and finally, by the way men treat it, how, with which kind of barrels, which light, which temperature, which manipulation, etc… That’s why we don’t care about the very old vegetal variety which was used originally.

    To be frank, when I discovered the names used in the Anglo-Saxon wine production I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself “Hey, they really are beginners, they don’t have wines yet, they use the primitive vegetal denomination”. You see, for us, when we read “chardonnay” or “cabernet” we don’t feel we’re in front of a wine, but rather a newbie’s experiment, or even a scientific experience, almost like if the wine were called “oxygen, carbonate, nitrogen…”

    In France you’re supposed to know wines from culture and personal experience. By the way, the English aristocracy has never complained about French denomination for wines. It was a cultural knowledge. You can dislike it, but if we start calling wines like you, it’s a part of human legacy that will disappear.

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