Deciphering a Saint Émilion Bordeaux Wine Label

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A wine label is supposed to tell you some basics: who made the wine and what type it is, where it’s from, its vintage, and its alcohol content. So they ought to be easy to understand, right? Well, then why the heck are some so hard to decipher?

First, let’s tackle one of the Bordeaux essentials. The region is divided by the Gironde River, and the wines are often referred to based on location, either “right bank” or “left bank” of the river. Though they’re both considered Bordeaux, the two river banks are split into different communes, and have different rules for classification—quite common in larger regions.

The wines of Saint-Émilion (right bank) have been classified since 1855. Unlike the wines from the left bank region, this classification is updated every 10 years or so, consisting of the following levels: Premier Grand Cru Classé A, Premier Grand Cru Classé B, and Grand Cru Classé. The classification of this wine is Grand Cru Classé. (Grand Cru is the highest classification of French wine, and Premier Cru is next highest.) Oh, and here’s an interesting fact: If you ever see “1er” on a label, it means the same thing as “Premier.”

The wines of Saint-Émilion are typically a blend of grape varieties, the main one being merlot. Cabernet franc plays a lesser role, and a small amount of cabernet sauvignon is not uncommon. (Left bank wines are usually cabernet-based.)

Now, let’s take a look at a typical Saint-Émilion label. The producer or estate will usually be preceded with the word “Chateau.” (and by the way, if it says “Chateau,” and there’s a drawing of a chateau on the label, it must accurately resemble the actual chateau.)

The vintage and proprietor and country of origin are all very straightforward here. In this particular example, the alcohol level happens to be listed on the back label, along with the blend of grapes in the wine. Piece of cake, right?!

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