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Jan 12, 2012 12:58 PM

Varietal info on French bottles

While doing reseach on White Bordeauxs, I have visited some of theBay area's wine shops and noticed that more and more French wine have actual varietal listings on the back lable. And while I am pretty sure it is the importers doing, in my mind this is a very positive sign. Taking some of the mystery out always helps. Really good for blended wines.

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  1. The names on the labels (Bordeaux, Chablis, Champagne) will usually tell you what grapes are used in the wine -- the percentages might vary somewhat, but the blend of grapes has to match up, or it can't bear that particular name and will be relegated to "Vin de Pays" or worse, "Vin du Table".

    I know it's not as intuitive as having the cepages listed, but I find the French labeling more accurate -- if the label says Bordeaux Blanc, or Champagne, or Chablis, I know about how it will taste.

    Not so with wines simply labeled with the kind of grape, with no notice as to the terroir or the style.

    18 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      I understand both approaches, but It helps to have more information than less. In my Bordeaux search, I'm finding that any more than 30% Semillon makes the wine a bit "oily" to me but the 100% SV blanc misses the boat for me on the mineral side. Having percentages on the bottle is giving me some guidelines.

      1. re: budnball

        Why should the French be any different than the Americans??? Neither one lists varietal percentages on their labels an overwhelming majority of the time. It's the exception in BOTH countries . . . and the French label is in fact more specific!

        For example, take a Sauvignon Blanc from California. In order to be a varietal wine, 75 percent of the wine must be made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. But what's the other 25 percent? (Let's presume that information is *not* voluntarily printed on the back label.) Any ideas?

        I don't. Anything I would say would be a complete WAG (wild a$$ guess) on my part. Legally it could be Sémilion, Sauvignon Musque, Chardonnay, Muscat -- even Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel or Pinot Noir! All would be perfectly legal, perfectly acceptable.

        Now, take a dry white Bordeaux from, say, the appellation of Pessac-Léognan. I may not know the exact percentages from the label here either, but I know that it can *only* contain Savuginon Blanc, Sémilion, and Muscadelle. And if I am that concerned about percentages, well, at least I can always look up the plantings of the vineyard in a book. Since the wine is only produced from the chateau's own vineyards, I know that will be very close to the percentages of the final wine.


        1. re: zin1953

          I guess I self edit when I wine shop now. If the bottle doesn't have certain info, I just put it down and move on. More info better than less. Does it hurt anyone to put percentages on the label?. I appreciate the tradition of classic old world labeling, but a little sticker in back in English helps greatly in impulse buying. At least for me.

          Except for Pinots, most the wine I currently drink are blends.

          1. re: budnball

            Like you, I'm partial lately to blends, especially the Rhone varietals, red or white. Shopping with a pal recently noticed one we've enjoyed as a daily sipper called Clayhouse Adobe White. The 2008 I'd had a while back was 64% Viognier and 36% Roussanne, iirc, this bottle was the 2010 and gave us a good chuckle when we read "46% Viognier, 27% Sauv Blanc, 16% Grenache Blanc, 9% Other White, and 2% Chenin Blanc. Had fun speculating about that "other white" ... hmmm Thompson Seedless from the central valley?



            1. re: budnball

              >>> I guess I self edit when I wine shop now. If the bottle doesn't have certain info, I just put it down and move on. More info better than less. Does it hurt anyone to put percentages on the label?. I appreciate the tradition of classic old world labeling, but a little sticker in back in English helps greatly in impulse buying. At least for me. <<<

              So, you wouldn't buy a Château Lafite because the percentage of the grape varieties isn't on the label? Or you'd pass on a bottle of Domaine de la Mordorée Châteauneuf-du-Pape because they don't list the percentages on the label??? What about a bottle of Dom Pérignon Champagne? or -- just to change countries for a moment -- that bottle of Fonseca Vintage Porto? Is it ***crucial*** for you to know that the bottle of (e.g.) Musigny in front of you is 100 percent Pinot Noir, versus 98 percent Pinot Noir and two percent Chardonnay?

              Now, OBVIOUSLY, I am having a bit of fun here, picking examples of truly excellent wines, but I am a bit curious as to where you draw the line. When *will* you buy -- or perhaps i should ask, WHAT will you buy -- without knowing the percentages?


              1. re: budnball

                Why put the bottle down, if you like the wines?

                I am with Jason here, in that I know what the allowed varietals (and the likely varietals) are, and the exact % is of no real concern - either I like the wine, or I do not. Pretty simple.

                Same in the US, and lets take a Bdx.-style blend as an example. I know that there are five grapes, that might be in that year's blend. I do not care if it's more heavily oriented to Cab. Sauvignon, Cab. Franc, Merlot, or the other two. One great vintage of Cain Five, was actually "Cain Four," as the Merlot was not deemed adequate for that year's blend. So long as the wine delights me, I could care less, except from a purely academic standpoint.

                Maybe it is just me,


                1. re: Bill Hunt

                  I guess you are missing my point. I am at a place in my wine journey where my tasting notes are focused on the grape. And while I know that wine is a combination grape, ground and grower, for me, at this time, this is where I am. I will not buy wine without such info on the label NOW. It does not mean that I won't ever, it means that now I am trying to trust my own palate in a way that makes sense for me.
                  I am not buying "great wines" and "great vintages" before I am ready to understand why they are considered great and I am in no hurry. Old world wine with their labels will be there when I am ready for them.

                  And the percentages do make a difference when dealing with the white Bordeauxs that started me down this road. At least to me

                  1. re: budnball

                    But even with a California wine featuring the grape variety prominently on the label, you still aren't focusing on the grape unless what's inside is 100% of that grape.

                    And with Bordeaux Blanc, I would guess I could pour you two glass of wine containing the same grape variety assemblage from the same vintage, and they could be completely different experiences for you.

                    So one needs to take into account many factors of the finished product -- grape variety, producer style/treatment, where the grapes are grown, vintage, etc.

                    Even finding a wine that is considered "varietally correct" still comes with the disclaimer for the are in which the grapes are grown.

                    1. re: Brad Ballinger

                      I get all this. However if I am making an impulse purchase of a wine that i don't know and a vintner that I don't know, having more information is better than less. That is all I am saying. The label can not tell me how the wine tastes, but it should give me an idea.

                      And yes, you could likely pour me 2 different white Bordeaux with the same percentages and get a different taste note from me. But I am sure that if the balance is more then 30% Semillon I would taste that. I am focused on Semillon because it has a mouth feel and taste like no other white grape to me.
                      I can not afford the $75-200 a bottle cost of a name white Bordeaux, so I am looking for alternatives.

                      1. re: budnball

                        Lots of good Bordeaux Blanc available for less than $75/bottle. Some of them even have muscadelle in the blend.

                        1. re: budnball

                          I do not think that you "get it." Some producers DO list the % of the various grapes, but many do not. That is how it is, whether you are satisfied, or not.


                      2. re: budnball

                        >>> I guess you are missing my point. <<<

                        No. Not really. I understand your point. I just disagree. The label on a French bottle provides me with MORE information than a California label.

                        This has nothing to do with "buying 'great wines' and 'great vintages'," if by "great wines" you mean famous names. OTOH, it has *everything* to do with buying wines that taste great . . .

                        1. re: budnball

                          "I am trying to trust my own palate in a way that makes sense for me."

                          I'm not sure what that has to do with knowing or not knowing the grape varietal in a wine.

                          1. re: budnball

                            Then you might want to stick to the domestic (US) wines, where the % of each grape is listed.

                            Good luck,


                            1. re: Bill Hunt

                              Or rather, stick to those FEW domestic (US) wines that bother to list the percentages of each grape . . .

                              Ridge -- IN
                              Mount Eden Vineyard - OUT

                              Phelps Insignia -- IN
                              Phelps Eisele -- OUT

                              Ah well . . .

                              1. re: zin1953

                                I agree. Especially when one gets into the various, and often very good, proprietary wines (usually Bdx. blends), there might, or might not, be varietal percentages.

                                One winery, that seems hell-bent on producing 100% varietal wines is Cline, though not sure if they have also begun blending, beyond the ATF allowances?


                                1. re: zin1953

                                  More info, the better. For years, wine writers used to "reveal" that a Pomerol was really just a merlot, and a Volany, pinot noir, and wonder why the French eat don't, at least for export, capitalize on the American obsession with varietals. I doubt knowing the specific percentages in, say, a Chateauneuf du Pape may matter much, but among other blends, it might: a grower in the southern Rhone might think it smart to trumpet their 60% syrah CdR--if only until grenache becomes more popular. Portugal I believe requires percentages of varietals, and this has helped steer me to those wines whose principal varietals I've learned to like more than others. I sometimes wonder how relatively low-profile but otherwise potentially attractive blends (think, Rosso Piceno vs Rosso Conero ) might benefit from some varietal information on a back label--if those varietals themselves conveyed a sense of identity.

                                  1. re: bob96

                                    It isn't a question of "more info = better; less info = bad" -- certainly not in terms of the quality of what is in your glass. But even in terms of knowledge . . .

                                    Rather, the keys are a) in terms of labels, what is required, and what isn't?; and b) what one actually DOES with that information.

                                    I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but European wines are not based on varietals but rather on location. With the exception of Alsace (and that's due to its German connection), varietal wines were -- and still are -- the *exception* not the rule, and *generally* denote a LESSER quality wine. Think of the varietal wines which bear the designation Vin de Pays d'Oc or Vin de Pay des Jardins de France. And let's not forget these only came about in the last quarter of the 20th century.

                                    Portugal, BTW, does not require percentages.

                                    To add to the problem of percentages, historically, one must remember that the majority of estate-bottled European wines composed of multiple varieties have typically been mixed in the VINEYARD -- in other words, as field blends. In contract, most New World vineyards (there are a few notable exceptions, to be sure) are planted in blocks, and any blending is done in the WINERY.

                                    The result? With many European wines, the specific percentages found in any given wine are IMPOSSIBLE to know. The most one can hope for is to know the percentage of the vineyard (for example, 73 percent of the vines are Variety X, 15 percent is Variety Y, and 12 percent is Variety Z).

                                    But then there is the question of what one does to the information -- or rather, how one uses the information. In other words, what does knowing that Wine A has 60 percent Syrah, while Wine B is composed of 50 percent Syrah actually tell you in terms of flavor?

                                    Going back to the OP's comment of

                                    >>> I'm finding that any more than 30% Semillon makes the wine a bit "oily" to me but the 100% SV blanc misses the boat for me on the mineral side. <<<

                                    I have had any number of wines that were 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc that showed tons of minerality, while wines that were 100 percent Sémilion that weren't "oily" or "waxy" at all!

                                    In other words, I have always found it easy to make broad generalizations, but very difficult to make specific ones . . .


                  2. Varietals aren't flavors, places are.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Chinon00


                      Chardonnay -- even 100% Chardonnay -- tastes VERY different from the Napa Valley compared to the Santa Cruz Mountains, let alone in Burgundy, Chablis, or Champagne. . . .

                      1. re: zin1953

                        Boy howdy, I thought I just didn't like the grape until I was introduced to some very nice French examples and since have even found a few from CA that I enjoy.

                        1. re: zin1953

                          I will ONLY buy in, about 50% here.

                          Think about the differences between general Cab. Franc, regardless of the earth, where it is grown.

                          To me, it is a combo, but maybe I am missing something important?


                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            Well . . . if you're going to get TECHNICAL about it . . .

                            Actually, if you REALLY get right down to it, there are three factors -- location (location, location), the specific variety/varieties one is using (after all, you don't want your Chenin Blanc to taste like Zinfandel), AND the hand of the winemaker -- who can EASILY "over-ride" the character of the terroir, and o the grape, through (for example) the heavy-handed use of oak.


                      2. When I'm buying a French wine with which I'm not familiar, I'm a lot more interested in who the importer is rather than the grape percentages. The grape percentages tell me nothing because they tell me nothing about the care with which the wine was made, whether there were excessive yields, etc. By contrast, I more or less know that if a certain importer has chosen to import this wine, it will meet my threshold for being a good wine. For that reason, it's much easier for me to pick out a good French wine at random than a unknown California wine where I can't rely on an importer's seal of approval.

                        1 Reply
                        1. Adding that information on the bottle does not add/remove anything from the quality (good, bad) of the wine.

                          it is just a cultural and marketing thing.

                          But if that prevent you from buying wine, then that is your loss.
                          No biggie

                          1. concentrating ONLY the grape when buying wine is a bit like concentrating ONLY on the paint color when buying a car.

                            It narrows the playing field down a bit, but it doesn't guarantee you'll get any other aspect you'd like to have.