In a previous post I described Canada’s VQA standard for helping to ensure the wine you purchase is an enjoyable experience. Not all countries take this same approach to standard identification. Many countries, such as Australia and the United States, govern the wine industry with a general set of standards and controls and do not adhere to any particular categorization for wine quality. However, there are other countries, such as France, Italy & Germany that do have quality standards specific to wine.
To begin I will focus on France, which has 3 primary quality groupings. The first is AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), which indicates the geographical origin, quality and the style of a wine. The Europe-wide equivalent of AOC is AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée). All Grand Cru and Premier Cru wines fall into the AOC category.
Grand Cru is the very highest classification of French wine. The term can refer to a wine in one of two ways, either the plot of land where the grapes are grown or the chateau at which the wine is made. The former applies most famously in Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne but is also used in Languedoc and the Loire Valley; the latter being exclusive to Bordeaux.
Premier Cru denotes either a vineyard plot (most often in Burgundy) of superior quality, or the very highest tier within a Grand Cru classification (such as the ‘Premier Grand Cru Classé chateaux of Bordeaux).
The second wine category is VDP (Vin de Pays), which means ‘wine of the land’, although it is often translated as ‘country wine’. The European equivalent is IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée). This category focuses on geographical origin rather than style and tradition, and gives winemakers greater stylistic freedom than AOC. Vin de Pays was introduced in the 1970s, and by the year 2000 there were more than 150 individual VDP titles, covering about a quarter of French wine production
The final category, Vin de France, replaced Vin de Table in 2010, but remains the most basic quality tier for French wine. This is the least regulated (and least used) of the three categories; Vin de France wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in France, but their labels do not mention a specific region of origin. Vintage and grape varietal statements are optional.
Some of the French quality scales can be easily identified on the wine label. For example, if applicable the term ‘Grand Cru’ or ‘Premier Cru’ will appear somewhere on the label. You will also notice a correlation between the quality rating and the price of the wines. Generally speaking ‘Grand Cru’ wines are at the top end of the price scale, with ‘Premier Cru’ are somewhat less expensive.
Here are some helpful hints when interpreting a French wine label; some of the terms are more obvious than others.
- Blanc = White wine
- Brut = Dry
- Château = The name of the wine producer
- Côte/Coteaux = Slope of a hill/hillsides, for example Côtes du Rhône
- Crémant = A style of sparkling wine different from Champagne
- Cru = Means ‘growth’ – it is used to denote the status of a winery or vineyard
- Cru Classé = Classified vineyard, suggesting a certain quality or age of the vines
- Demi-sec = Medium-dry
- Domaine = Estate
- Doux = Sweet
- Grand Cru = Signifying the highest quality wines
- Méthode Traditionnelle = Traditional method of sparkling winemaking, like Champagne
- Mis en bouteille au château/domaine = Bottled at the winery
- Premier Cru = First growth
- Propriétaire = Identifies the estate or vineyard owner
- Rouge = Red
- Sélection de Grains Nobles = Sweet wine made from botrytized grapes (grapes containing botrytis fungus, which is seen as being beneficial to the wine)
- Supérieur = Wine with a higher alcohol content as a result of being made from riper grapes
- VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) = a mid-level classification used between 1949 and 2012
- Vendange Tardive = Late harvest (sweet) wines
- Vieilles Vignes = Old vines
- Vigneron/Viticulteur = Vine grower/grape grower
- Vignoble = Vineyard
- Vin = Wine
Hopefully all of this will help take some of the mystery out of how to find an enjoyable French wine. I have found that the French wines that are exported, especially any of those that appear on the shelves of the Vintages section of my local liquor store, are all worth a try. I think you will find that French wine does not need to be expensive nor of a specific quality standard to be enjoyable.
In the future I will take a similar look at German and Italian wine classifications.