Guide to French Wine
No other country in the world produces a larger volume of quality wine than France, and no other country produces it in such diversity. No other wine producing nation has such a long history of quality wine production that defines style as do the wine regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône, Champagne, the Loire, and Alsace.
France was the first country to legislate a system to codify viticultural and horticultural practices and protect geographical names of origin. Today, France has over 450 different appellations d’origine contrôlee (AOC). Though not a guarantee of top quality, the AOC designation is a considerable help to the consumer in determining the range and styles of taste. Of the more than 2 million acres of vineyard in France, half are dedicated to wine authorized as AOC. We have divided this section by major wine region: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire and Alsace. Each introduction will look at the particular region in depth and describe its climate, soils and grape varieties as well as other factors that combine to shape its differing styles of wine.
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Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée
Wine laws have been established in nearly all of the world’s wine producing countries to help codify established traditions and practices and to provide the consumer with protection against fraudulent activity and greed. France was an early leader in establishing laws that govern winemaking and wine labeling practices.
In France, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée [ah-pehl-lah-SYAWN daw-ree-JEEN kawn-traw-LAY] laws were established in 1935. There are now four categories that are officially regulated by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO). AOC laws cover many aspects related to the production of French wine: geographical limits of regions and vineyards, the grape varieties that can be used in a region, the minimum amount of alcohol the wine must contain, the maximum yield permitted per hectare and aspects of viticulture and vinification that represent tradition and history for the region.
The highest rank is Appellation Contrôlée (AC), which includes practically all of the famous wines of France. The phrase is taken from the French term Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. This name, loosely translated, means “controlled place name” and is an excellent guide for the consumer to the authenticity of the wine that bears this designation. Examples of AC wines are Gevrey-Chambertin, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Pauillac and Champagne. Just below AOC is VDQS, a rarely used designation.
The second category, Vins de Pays (VDP), which means “country wines,” replaced Appellation d’Origine Simple in 1973 to bring French law into line with European Common Market regulations. These wines must come from specified, yet broadly defined, areas. Many Vin de Pays wines come from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region and offer the consumer tremendous value for the money.
At the bottom of the quality scale is Vins de Table. These “table wines” may be blends of any grapes not found objectionable under French pure food laws. In fact, the wines do not even need to come from France unless the bottle bears the words “Product of France.” These wines can actually be quite passable and are never very costly. Many of them are marketed with the producer’s name or a proprietary brand name.
Although the French system has been copied by other countries, so far none of them seem to be as successful. Other classification systems include the American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the United States, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy and the Denominación de Origen (DO) in Spain.
Thanks to France’s innovative wine laws, the consumer now enjoys higher quality French wine than has ever been available before. Santé!
Language of the Label
- Appellation (d’Origine) Contrôlée (AC) – wines whose geographical origins, varietal make-up and production methods are precisely regulated – generally the best and certainly the most traditional
- VDQS – AC/AOC in-waiting, less than 1% of French wine qualifies for this designation.
- Vin de Pays – literally, “country wine,” often from areas larger than AC zones, in which nontraditional varieties and higher yields are allowed
- Vin de Table – basic wine for which no geographical origin, grape variety or vintage may be claimed
Other common expressions
- Blanc – white
- Cave (coopérative) – co-operative winery
- Château – wine estate or even farm, typically in Bordeaux
- Coteaux de, Côtes – typically hillsides
- Cru – literally a “growth,” a specified superior plot of land
- Cru classé – cru that has been selected by an important classification such as the 1885 in Bordeaux
- Domaine – vineyard holding, Burgundy’s generally smaller-scale answer to château
- Grand Cru – literally, “great growth”: in Burgundy, the finest vineyards; in St. Emilion, nothing special
- Méthode classique, méthode traditionnelle – sparkling wine made using the same method as for Champagne
- Mis (en bouteille) au château/domaine/la propiété – estate-bottled wine made by the same enterprise that grew the grapes
- Négociant – an enterprise that buys in wine or grapes
- Premier Cru – literally, “first growth”: in Burgundy a notch down from Grand Cru; in the Médoc, one of the top four châteaux
- Proprietaire-récoltant – owner-vinegrower
- Récoltant – vinegrower
- Récolte – vintage
- Rosé – pink Rouge red
- Supérieur – usually just slightly higher in alcohol, infers riper fruit flavors and fuller body
- Vielles vignes – old vines and therefore in theory denser wine, though the “old” is unregulated
- Vigneron – vinegrower
- Villages – suffix denoting selected communes, or parishes, within an appellation
- Vin – wine
- Viticulteur – vinegrower