Reading wine labels can be an art

Label art and label law are two completely different things, but sometimes there can be a real art to reading the label.

Wine law is meant to clarify and identify what is in the bottle. But sometimes, the law itself confuses and confounds.

The wines of Saint Emilion are case in point. They can be labeled Saint Emilion, Saint Emilion Grand Cru or Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe.

A wine labeled simply Saint Emilion hails from this specific growing region of Bordeaux. A Saint Emilion Grand Cru is produced in exactly the same zone of production…but with higher production standards.

A wine labeled Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe, hails from the same area of origin, is made with more demanding production standards and has been ranked within the Saint Emilion classification system. Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe has the highest pedigree of the three.

Many consumers confuse Saint Emilion Grand Cru with Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe. They are not the same. Only 74 Chateaux are entitled to put Grand Cru Classe on their labels. It's a point of difference that is often overlooked on the retail shelf.

Yet another confusing bit of wine label law is that of the "lieu-dit" or "named parcel."

In Burgundy, for example, every plot of land has been given a name and the producer has the right to put that name on the label. You see this often: Chablis "Mont de Milieu" or Macon-Lugny "Les Charmes."

Some of these named parcels have been qualitatively ranked as Premier Cru or Grand Cru while others have not. Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines state the fact on the label. You will literally see the words "Premier Cru" (sometimes written "1er Cru") or 'Grand Cru" plus the lieu-dit.

But here is where it gets challenging.

In 1847, in order to capitalize on the fame of its prized vineyards, the villages of Burgundy were allowed to append the name of its most famous or highest-ranked vineyard to the name of the village itself. The village of Gevrey became Gevrey-Chambertin. The village of Chambolle became Chambolle-Musigny.

A wine labeled Gevrey-Chambertin hails from the village of Gevrey. A wine simply labeled "Chambertin" is the Grand Cru.

If purchasing the wine, the price difference will be a big indicator, but if you are being served the two, now you know which is which.

There are only 33 Grands Crus in Burgundy, so it isn't hard to identify them. Like "Cher" they are all on a first name basis. Premiers Crus are another matter; there are 635 of those.

The important point here is that a specific premier cru-ranked parcel will name that parcel and accompany it with the words "Premier Cru." If the only thing you see on the label is "Premier Cru" (i.e. no lieu-dit), the bottle contains a blend of Premier Cru vineyards. (Ex: Montagny Premier Cru vs. Montagny "Les Combes")

Do great wines have to come from a ranked vineyard?


Domaine Cheveau 2010 Macon Solutre-Pouilly "Sur le Mont" (a named but unranked parcel) is an absolutely succulent little chardonnay bursting with ripe and concentrated golden delicious apple fruit. The finish is all stone and flint ($24).

Reading between the lines…it's a fabulous wine.

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