Understanding French Wine Labels

Yours truly as Marie Antoinette!

Bonjour!  Yes, that’s me dressed up as Marie Antoinette for Halloween a couple years back.  I have always been a Francophile.  I chose French as my minor in college; and have a genuine love for French art, food, language, culture, and wine.  Knowing French made my journey into the world of wine easier, because so much “winespeak” is in French.  Let’s increase your own savoir faire by learning some words and phrases and their pronunciations.
Vin (“vangt”): means wine. (Of course.) I start with this basic word because so many people shy away from pronouncing it correctly. It’s NOT pronounced “vin”, like the actor Vin Deisel.  If you combined the first part of the word “van” and the last part of the word “huh?”, you’d be saying it correctly.  
Terroir (“tair-wahr “): The site, soil, climate, and their impacts on the flavors in the wine.  
Clos (“clo”, pronounced with a long o and the s is silent):  refers to a French vineyard, especially one enclosed by a wall.  It’s often used to name a vineyard specifically ( Clos-Vougeot in Burgundy).  This term is now increasingly used outside of Francel.  
Cru (“crew”):  a vineyard or group of vineyards, especially of recognized quality.  It refers to LOCATIONS- such as vineyardsthat have been designated a Grand Cru or Premier Cru.  Oftenproudly displayed on a wine label.
Cuvée (“coo-vay”):   A term used two different ways in the wine industry.  Most often means a blend of either grapes or wines, from particular barrels or vats.  The other usage refers to Champagne, where the first press of harvested grapes is considered the best.  It is also used to imply prestige or quality, and because the term is not officially regulated, it can appear on the labels of even ordinary wines as a marketing tool.

Tête de cuvée (“tett-deh-coovay”):  The best champagne of a particular maker.  The word “tête” means “head” in French, so in this case, they mean their highest quality.  Examples are Dom Pérignon for Moët & Chandon and La Grande Dame of VeuveCliquot.
Appellation d’Origine Controllée:  wait, what?  Save yourself from that mouthful and just call it AOC, like everyone else on Earth.  It’s a term for wine that comes from a defined location, is made from specific authorized grape varieties, was made following strict regulations covering viticulture and vinifying.  It basically assures quality over quantity, and you see that term almost every French bottle of wine sold in the US.  Wines that don’t have AOC status fall into other categories like country wines or table wines.
Lastly, and almost universally mispronounced:
Veuve, as in Veuve Cliquot.  The word “veuve” means “widow” in French.  Most Americans pronounce “veuve” with the vowel sounding like “should”.  I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but… that’s incorrect.  It is actually rhymes with “love” or “dove”.  If we remember to show the Widow Cliquot some LOVE, it helps us to remember how to say it correctly.

I write about wine in plain language in my blog with the intention of further informing my students.  New readers and wine lovers alike are welcome! I teach large and small groups, newcomers and oenophiles, privately and in the classroom. I can always be reached at gendecott2u@gmail.com.


Ginny Endecott. Wine Instructor

Certified Wine Specialist

WSET Level 3

French Wine Scholar


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