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French Wine Classification

France is one of the oldest wine producing regions in Europe and is the world's largest producer by value. (not volume however).

Despite some small exports from Bordeaux, until about 1850 most wine in France was consumed locally. People in Paris drank wine from the local vineyards, people in Bordeaux drank Bordeaux, those in Burgundy drank Burgundy, and so on throughout the country.

Then, in 1855 in preparation for the Great International Exposition in Paris, a regional appellation system was developed. At the request of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, the Union of Brokers attached to the Bordeaux market identified the Grands Crus (Great Growths) and organized them into five categories: four Premiers Crus (First Growths), 15 Deuxiemes Crus (Second Growths), 14 Troisiemes Crus (Third Growths), 10 Quatriemes Crus (Fourth Growths), and 17 Cinquiemes Crus (Fifth Growths). The rankings were based entirely on recent prices.

White wines in Bordeaux were also ranked. One (present-day Chateau d'Yquem) was uniquely ranked above all others in its own category, that of Premier Cru Superieur (Superior First Growth). There were 11 First Growths and 12 Second Growth white wines. These, too, were established entirely on the basis of recent prices in 1855.

Within two years of the classification system being published, wine sales by the classified producers increased by 250 percent.

Burgundy's classification system was created in 1861 for the Paris World's Fair in 1862 and has 110 appellations in an area only one-fifth the size of Bordeaux.

With an increase in wine trade and export came increases in wine fraud, whereby inferior wines were labelled as superior wines, or inferior wines were blended with the wines of well-known producers. A number of laws to fight cheating were passed on July 30, 1935 and the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), a branch of the French Ministry of Agriculture, was created to manage the administration of the process for wines.

Consequently, France has one of the oldest appellation systems for wine in the world, and many other European systems are modelled on it. With the European Union wine laws being modelled on those of the French, this trend is likely to continue with further EU expansion.

French law divides wine into four categories, with two falling under the European Union's Table Wine category and two falling under the EU's Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR) designation. The categories are:

Table Wine:

  • Vin de table

    • Carries with it only the producer and the designation that it's from France.

  • Vin de pays

    • Carries with it a specific region within France

QWPSR:

  • Appellation Controlee (AC)

    • A locale within a region (e.g. Cote de Beaune)

  • Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC)

    • Indicates a specific vineyard (e.g. Chateau Margaux)

A French Wine Label

 

 

Appellation Controlee & Appellation d'Origine Controlee

 

Commonly abbreviated to AC or AOC, for these wines the place name is the primary name of the wine*. This is the highest level of the French system of geographic naming control and was made official on July 30th 1935 to regulate French wine production, purity and geographic origin. Rules for AOC qualification are stringent and far-reaching,covering everything from grape varieties and winemaking methods to yields and vine density. Wines from regions that have not earned AOC status may fall into one of the lower classifications.

*(The notable exception to this rule is the region of Alsace, where AOC wines are named for their grape variety, followed by the AOC name, Alsace. You could argue that another exception is Muscadet, because that word is used as a synonym for Melon de Bourgogne, the grape that makes Muscadet wines)

VDQS (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure)

Meaning 'delimited wine of superior quality', this category is intended to recognize the quality of certain smaller wine producing areas. While wines bearing this designation comprise only about 1% of annual wine production in France, guidelines for qualification are strict and many VDQS areas have eventually graduated to full AOC status.

VDP or Vin de Pays

Meaning 'country wine', this official category of French wines comprises about one quarter of the wine produced in France. Wines bearing this designation should be of higher quality than vin de table wines and should demonstrate a certain amount of regional character. Although there are 15 categories of VDP, the largest and most common is Vin de Pays d'Oc.

Vin de Pays d'Oc

Blessed with a fine sunny climate overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the Vin de Pays d'Oc is a regional 'Vin de Pays' from the Languedoc. It is the most important single 'Vin de Pays' and is the prime source for France's varietal wines. The majority of wines are red. The region is the largest vineyard in the world and the leading world producer of varietal wines such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Unlike some other regions of France that require some knowledge of French geography to decipher the wine label, Vin de Pays d'Oc wines are comfortingly labeled by the principal grape variety.

Vin de Table

Meaning 'table wine' and also called 'vin ordinaire', this is the basic and largely unregulated class of French wine comprising about one quarter of all wine produced in France. Labels of these wines do not bear information regarding grape variety or geographic origin more specific than the name of the country.

The French Wine Term Glossary

AC/AOC Appellation (d'Origine) Controlee
Barrique 225 litre oak cask
Blanc de blanc White wine from white grapes
Blanc de Noirs White wine from black grapes
Brut Dry (usually for sparking wines)
Cave Cellar
Cave/cooperative Cooperative cellar
Cepage Grape (variety)
Chateau Property usually making/bottling its own wine
Clos Walled vineyard
Commune Often a collection of small villages allowed to make up a particular appellation
Cote Slope or side of a hill
Haut Cote High side of a hill
Cremant Sparkling
Cru Growth from a specific vineyard
Cru Bourgeois Classification used for Médoc properties
Cru Classe Classed growth
Cuve Wine vat or tank
Cuve Close Bulk method for sparkling wine making
Cuvee Blend
DemiSec Semi-dry
Domaine Property usually making/bottling its own wine
Doux Sweet
Eleveur Grower. Indicates ownership of vines and therefore that the winemaker can claim to grow the grapes but doesn't necessarily mean they pick and harvest their own grapes.
Elevage Maturation & pre bottling treatment
Eleve en Futs Barrel Aged. Often seen with the words 'de Chene' meaning 'of Oak'
Foudre Large wooden vat
Fut Small cask
Grand Vin Primarily on Bordeaux labels but also found on Burgundy's, this signifies the main wine from the producer, although it's not an official term doesn't necessarily a 'great wine'.
Grand Cru 'great growth' or more specifically 'great growth vineyard'; like premier cru, this term is used only in certain regions, where it applies to the very best vineyards. It's the highest classification overall.
Grand Cru Classe This term means 'Classed great growth' and is mainly used in Bordeaux
Grande marque Champagne house
Marque Brand
Methode champenoise Champagne method of making sparkling wine
Millesime Vintage year (year grapes were harvested)
Mis en bouteille 'bottled', 'au Chateau' at the chateau - or 'au domaine', at the winery; it's equivalent to the term 'estate bottled' with new world wines. 'a la Propriete' at the property.
Moelleux Fairly sweet
Monopole Exclusive brand name
Negociant Merchant
Petillan/Petillance A light sparkle
Premier Cru Literally meaning "first growth" but more correctly, "first growth vineyard"; this term is used in certain regions to denote superior vineyards that have special AC status. 2nd highest vineyard classification overall.
Recolte Harvest or vintage. Similar to Millesime
Recoltant Harvester/farmer. Indicates winemaker is not just grower of grapes, but also harvests or picks their own grapes.
Reservee Translated as Reserve. In some countries like Spain and Italy it can mean that the wine was matured in oak for longer periods although this is an unregulated term in France.
Sec Dry
Superieure Appears as part of some AOC names, and it usually denotes a wine with a slightly higher alcohol level than the non superior version of the same wine.
Tete de Cuvee Literally 'Head of the blend' meaning wine from first pressing
Vendange Grape picking process
Vieilles Vignes Old Vines; this term is unregulated, but it suggests a superior wine because old vines produce fewer grapes and hence a more concentrated wine.
Vigneron Vine grower
Vin de Pays Country wine (see above)
Vin de Table Table wine (see above)
Viticulteur Winemaker