French wine labeling laws are one of the things people who work in wine spend a significant amount of time studying in wine class. Everything is legislated for what were originally very good reasons. Even more complicated than the laws behind the labels though, is the complex systems of appellations that the label expresses. It's one of the biggest complaints non-wine professionals have about French wine. If you don't know the appellation, you just don't know much about the wine. For example, most people know if they see Bourgogne somewhere on a label, that means it comes from Burgundy. But what if it says Chorey-les-Beaune (also Burgundy), or Condrieu (the Rhone Valley), or how about Saint-Emilion (Bordeaux). None of these, or the thousands of other appellations you could see on a bottle, even gets close to telling you what the grape is inside that bottle. Sigh.
Of course, there's a good reason for all that complicated silliness. It's because French wine (and a lot of French things, like cheese) are based on a sense of place. People in France got to know products way back when based on where they were from. They know that the little village of Saint Marcellin makes a really nice creamy soft cows-milk cheese and that Gevrey Chambertin (another Burgundy) makes super prestigious wines. When people started making wines in the US, they didn't have any of that sense of place branding to build on, so they decided to go with grape names instead. That's why lots of people have an idea of what Chardonnay and Pinot Noir taste like. But in France you hardly ever see the grape on the label.
The French wine laws came about originally because some really shady people, desperate during the dearth of wine in the phylloxera epidemic, started making fake wine out of sugar and fruit juice and other weird things, passing them off with labels that said wine. The AOC system definitely worked to protect consumers against that nastiness. They set up all kinds of requirements like maximum yield restrictions, grape varieties allowed, and chaptalization standards for every appellation. They also set up tasting panels to test the wines, to make sure they are typical of what the appellation is supposed to be like.
Now that all sounds well and good, but it can become a problem when it gets to that tasting panel. Especially when the panel is made up of a bunch of people who taste an unusual natural wine, say it's not typical, and reject it from the appellation. Now this particular natural wine may indeed not be typical, but that doesn't change the fact that there are lots of consumers, sommeliers, and wine shop owners who think the wine is great, and think it should sell for $15 or even higher. But once the wine has been rejected, the winemaker is probably going to have to lower it down to the Vin de Table (VdT), or table wine level, like the one you see pictured up top of this post.
Vin de Table is supposed to be really cheap crap basically. They usually cost around a dollar or two per bottle, the grapes can come from anywhere in France, and they can be a blend of as many grapes as wanted. There are no rules against chaptalization, no yield maximums, and even different vintages can be blended, if you've got some really old juice lying around that you don't know what to do with. It's not permitted to even put a vintage on the bottle. Thus we end up with a label that looks like this:
This wine is made in the Macon area of Burgundy by Gilles and Catherine Vergé, and it goes for somewere over $25 a bottle. It's fantastically made, super duper funky, and most definitely not recommended for any new-comers to natural wine. You'll see it on the shelves on the best natural wine shops all over Paris. Notice how it says Lot 02 04 on the top? That means it was harvested in 2002 and bottled in 2004. How do I know that? Because the winemaker told me that's their "code" for showing the vintage. Lots of natural winemakers have come up with tricks like this to indicate a vintage and squeeze it by the laws that govern these things. If you look at the bottom it does say the postal code where it was made, but how many French zip codes have you memorized? So not only does this wine not say a grape variety, or a place it's from, it can't even really say when it was made. Needless to say, these wines are even harder for the average consumer to understand than the old-school ones.
This wine probably adhered to all those standards I mentioned required by the appellation. It's not made with any funky non-allowed grapes, and it certainly had a minuscule yield compared to most Macon wines. So why go VdT? Well, to get to the point where the tasting panel will test your wine, you of course have to pay a fee. Then you also have to make all the labels. Sometimes the tasting panel is made up of a bunch of old fuddy-duddies that don't enjoy a cloudy and funky natural wine, and the wine will get rejected. Then the winemaker will have to make all new VdT labels, and is out the fee plus the cost of all the labels. So a lot of these winemakers just elect to remain free of the system, and do what they want without worrying about the government. They could probably make more money and charge more per bottle if they had an AOC designation on the bottle, but a lot of them don't want the hassle and prefer to do their own thing instead.
Here's one the worst examples of a hard-to-understand wine label I've seen yet. In case you're wondering, it's a light and cheerful pineau d'aunis made by Pascal Simonutti from the Loire valley. I'm still not really sure what some of that scrawl towards the bottom says. It's almost like some of them don't even want you to know what their wine is. It's kind of similar to the speakeasy trend in bars going on in New York, places with no sign out front that you just have to be cool enough to know how to find. And it actually does seem to work that way.
So how do you read natural wine labels? You don't, unfortunately! You really just have to know the producer, or know who you are buying from and trust their advice. This puts the focus back on who is making this wine, which is really what natural wines are all about anyway. And a certain amount of mystery can be a good thing, as long as you have an open enough mind and palette to handle some experimentation.