Julie Harrison - French Wine Classification

Publish Date
Thursday, 5 May 2016, 2:58PM
By Julie Harrison

French wine classification is a complex topic but knowing how it works goes a long way to help understand wine from France and also other parts of the European Union. 

Bordeaux is the most classified region in France and it all began in 1855 when Napoleon the Third wanted wines from Bordeaux classified for the Paris Exposition.  This system divided the best wines into 5 “Crus” or “Growths”.  The first growths (Premier Cru) were the highest quality wines.   Only three changes have been made to this classification since 1855 the most notable being in 1973 when Chateau Mouton Rothschild was promoted to First Growth status to be amongst  the 4 other famous names;  Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateaux Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Haut-Brion.   Wines from Bordeaux outside of Graves and the Medoc were not included in the classification so in 1958 St Emilion created its own system.  The top wines from this region are labelled Premier Grand Cru Classe A and B followed by Grand Cru Classe and Grand Cru.    These are re-evaluated every 10 years and there are currently four Premier Grand Cru Classes A wines; Chateau Ausone, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Pavie and Chateau Angelus.  Unfortunately most of the wines mentioned above are rather pricey so how do you go about deciphering less famous wines.

You may have heard the term Appellation d’Origine  Controlee  (AOC) or as it is now called;  Appellation d’Origine Protegee (AOP).  This system began in 1935 and around 45% of French wines fall under its banner.   Wines classified as AOC/AOP abide by strict rules in regard to what varieties are used in the wine, where the wine is from, production methods, alcohol levels, planting density, harvesting techniques and more besides.  The largest appellation in Bordeaux is Appellation Bordeaux Controlee.  Wines within this appellation can be from anywhere in Bordeaux.  Next step up is Appellation Bordeaux Superieur, which are also from anywhere in Bordeaux but with tighter controls over fruit quality, aging and use of oak.  From here you get more geographically precise with more rules and  theoretically better quality wines.  Famous appellations include Graves, Margaux and St Emilion.   If you have a bottle that reads Appellation Margaux Controllee (or Protegee) you immediately know it is from the Margaux appellation and the wine will have been produced according to the rules of this specific area which can help you understand what you are getting.

In Burgundy (home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) there are four very geographical classifications.  Regional wines are made from grapes that are grown from anywhere in Burgundy and are labelled Appellation Bourgogne Controlee.  The Regional wine classification also encompass the few wines made from grapes other than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir such as the white Aligote and the sparkling wines of Burgundy the Cremant de Bourgogne.    Village wines are the next step up and are made from wine from one of the 42 Burgundy villages.  An example would be a wine with a label that reads Appellation Meursault Controlee.  This wine comes from the village of Meursault.    Next up the ladder are Premier Cru wines which are labelled with their village and come from prime vineyards within that village.  Often the vineyard of origin is on the label for example; Meursault Premier Cru Clos des Poruzots.    Less than 1% of Burgundy are classified Grand Cru. Here you find famous names like Romanee-Conti and Batard-Montrachet.   The  AOC/AOP system covers all of France and follows the basic principles explained above with each region having its own geographical and production rules.

So what about the 55% of French wine that are not included in the AOC classification.  A very small amount of wines are classified as VDQS which falls just below AOC in terms of rules and regulations.  By far the majority of wines are either Vin de Pays (VDP)  or Vin de Table.  The Vin de Pays (VDP) classification  or the equivalent Europe wide Indication Geographique Protegee (IGP) is a geographical category introduced in 1968 and then modified in 2000 and 2009.  Wine makers can choose to use the VDP or IGP titles (or both) on their labels.   The name of the dominant grape variety or varieties and area of origin are allowed to be printed on the label which makes it easier to know what you are getting!  Arguably Some VDP are better wines than some AOC wines as winemakers have less traditional rules to follow and are often able to use improved wine making and grape  growing practices.  There are still rules that winemakers have to work with though to ensure the wine is of a certain quality.  There are three geographical levels of VDP wines.  The broadest is made up of 6 large wine producing areas; for example; VDP d’Oc are wines from Languedoc Roussillon and VDP du Val de Loire are from the Loire Valley.   The second level is a more geographically specific   departmental level for example VDP de l’Herault (a department within Languedoc-Roussillon) and finally the most location (and ‘terroir’) specific Vin de Pays de Zone; an example being IGP Cotes de Thongue which is a small area within the Herault region.  Vin de Pays wines often appeal to the New Zealand palate as the winemakers are able to use a more modern approach to wine making.

Vin de Table which has now become the new Vin de France classification can be grown anywhere in France and come under the cheap and cheerful category.  There are very few rules for wines made under this classification and you get what you pay for.  Under the Vin de Table classification you only knew  from the label that the wine was from France and who the producer was. The new Vin de France classification  allow the variety and vintage to be on the label.   It is worth noting that you can get the odd very good Vin de France as it is where producers who break AOC rules are forced to go until they are allowed back in the AOC fold!

Whilst French wine classification isn’t the easiest thing to follow a bit of knowledge can give you  a good idea of what the wine you are buying is about.

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