Winecast: French Wine Quality Classification


Hello everyone and welcome to the wine
cast. This episode is on the French system for classifying wine. As with the
previous episode on Italian wine classification, it might be worth
checking out the wine cast on the European Union Wine Quality Framework
before you watch this episode, and you might even take a look at the cast on
Italian wine classification for comparison’s sake. So, currently the French
system maps perfectly on to the EU framework for wine classification. Like
the EU framework, the French system has three tiers: a top level highly regulated
for quality wines, a less regulated middle tier and a bottom-level tier
largely for the production of inexpensive bulk wine. The French system
got to its current state by fits and starts, and it also has the distinction
of arguably being the oldest formal classification system for wine in the
modern world. The story of how it got where it is now starts in the early 20th
Century, which was a rough time for French wine and for wine throughout the
world, because the wine world was still reeling from three diseases: powdery
mildew, downy mildew and, probably the worst of all, Phylloxera, that attacked
vines in Europe and elsewhere and almost wiped out the wine industry as we know
it today. By some estimates Phylloxera alone caused French wine production to
drop by 75%. To all of that you can add the devastation caused by the first
world war to several wine regions in France, especially Champagne. All of these
factors combined to create some serious wine shortages early in the 20th century
and also to incentivize producers to cut corners and engage in various types of
fraud to goose up their wines. A key part of this Fraud involved blending less
expensive wines from areas with less of a reputation for quality with wines from
known quality producing areas. In reaction to practices like these, there
was a movement afoot in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in France to
develop an appellation system that would put the force of law behind guaranteeing
that if a bottle said it was from a particular region then so would all of
the wine in the bottle be. Though some regions like Champagne and the Côte du
Rhône had already secured a kind of appellation protection for themselves in
the past, things got interesting in 1923 when a group of producers in
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a small region in the southern Rhône Valley in
southeastern France, approached a French war hero turned lawyer who had taken up
residence in Châteauneuf when he married into one of the major wine
producing families in the area. The producers asked him to help them secure
an appellation for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The hero, an ace pilot during the first
world war, was the Baron Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, and he agreed to throw
his influence behind the proposal, but he also wanted to take the request for an
appellation a step farther and impose a series of strict rules on local
producers so the consumers buying their wines would not only know it was from
Châteauneuf but they would also know that they could expect a certain level
of quality because the wine production there adhered to a set of best practices. The rules he wanted limited the grapes that could be used,
limited where the vines could be planted and grown and, among other things, didn’t
allow winemakers to add sugar to their grape juice before fermentation to boost
alcohol levels in the finished wine, a practice called “chaptalization.” The
producers who approached him agreed and in 1926 the Baron made his proposal to a
local court on their behalf. Despite some opposition from some less than quality
minded local producers, the court agreed with the Baron and Châteauneuf received
an appellation, but along with it a series of legally required best
practices for winemakers to adhere to if they wanted to use that appellation. This
was a big deal because the Baron and the producers made the issue not just about
avoiding fraud by guaranteeing that all the wine in the bottle was from Châteauneuf, but they also made it about assuring customers that they will be
buying a wine of quality if they saw that place name on it. By the 1930s there
was mounting pressure to follow Châteauneuf’s example across all of France’s wine
regions, and in 1935 a nationwide system of controlled appellations was rolled
out called AOC’s for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or Controlled
Appellation of Origin, with the first official awards going to these AOC’s
the following year, including one for Châteauneuf that was formally included
in the nationwide system at this time even though in many ways it pioneered
the movement. The system was overseen by a regulatory body that would come to be
known after World War two as the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine and is possibly best known by the acronym INAO, in fact,
even though the current version of this organization has changed its name a bit,
it still goes by the INAO acronym. The AOC tier occupies the top level of the
French quality wine pyramid and it’s equivalent to the PDO
or quality level of the EU classification framework, meaning that a
wine carrying an AOC designation has to be made entirely from grapes grown in a
clearly demarcated geographic area and has to conform to usually very strict
regulations and requirements for grape growing and wine production.
the EU’s current framework was put in place in 2009, and, since then, member
countries like France have been working to bring their nomenclature in line with
that used by the EU, so more and more you may be seeing AOP for Appellation d’Origine Protegée on wine labels to designate this quality level than you’ll see AOC, but
both refer to exactly the same thing, and currently there are over 300 AOC or AOP
in France. Now if you remember the cast on the Italian classification
system, you’ll know that the top tier of the Italian wine pyramid is subdivided
into two categories DOC and DOCG with the latter of the two being
stricter and more prestigious than the former. France doesn’t do this; it only
has AOC’s, but the two approaches aren’t completely different because of the
peculiar way that France’s AOC’s relate to each other. Some people like to
describe AOC’s as nested within each other, but to me they seem more like
they’re layered, like parts of a collage. In a given French wine region you’re
likely to find a large regional AOC that covers the entire area and then within
that a number of district AOC’s that’re defined based on factors like the local
geography, and overlapping these districts and the regional AOC you’ll usually
find communal or village AOC defined based on the boundaries of a local
municipality. Finally, a bit less common are individual vineyards and single
estates that have been granted AOC status.
While these are all AOC’s, the general rule is that standards get stricter and
the chance of quality goes up the smaller the appellation gets. I like to
think of these appellations as layered, because if wine being made in one of the
smaller AOC’s, say, a village level one, doesn’t meet the standards for that AOC
it can be granted the AOC of the district that the village is in and if
it doesn’t meet those standards it can then go down another level and try for
regional AOC status. Looking at a real example of this might make things more
clear. Here’s an AOC map for Bordeaux. Notice the number 11 popping up in a
number of places on the map: here, down here, a couple of times over here, here
and a few other places. This represents the regional AOC for Bordeaux and it’s
actually lying underneath every colored area on this map but the only places you
can see it are those that don’t have an additional more specific AOC on top of
the regional one. Now let’s look at the area identified as number two here in
pink. This is the district AOC for the Haut-Médoc and on top of it
are lying a number of communal or village AOC’s identified in different
colors and in different numbers. We can use number seven as our example. this is
the AOC for Moulis-en-Médoc, and wine that’s made here if it doesn’t qualify for the
designation for Moulis-en-Médoc, because it hasn’t met the expectations or
guidelines for that AOC, it could potentially be qualified or classified
as Haut-Médoc wine because Moulis-en-Médoc sits on top of the Haut-Médoc AOC. If it doesn’t meet the guidelines and the expectations for Haut-Médoc AOC status, then it could potentially be classified as Bordeaux
AOC because both Haut-Médoc and Moulis-en-Médoc lie on top
of the regional Bordeaux AOC appellation. Now, Bordeaux doesn’t have any single
vineyard appellations but hopefully you get the idea from all of this. Also, keep
in mind that the smaller the AOC, the more specific the rules tend to be about
what can qualify for it. For example. the rules for the Haut-Médoc AOC, the
one in pink, and for all of its communal AOC s only allow for dry red wines to
receive those designations. If an estate in one of those areas produces white
wine, and there are some that do, it can only be given an AOC Bordeaux
designation at best and there are no AOC’s in Bordeaux beyond the regional one
that allow for Rosé, so any Rosé produced anywhere in Bordeaux can only
get the AOC Bordeaux status. What happens if a wine fails to meet the requirements
for AOC status? Then the wine could potentially be classed in the next tier
down on the quality pyramid, the IGP tier. This tier lines up with the EU PGI level
in the European Union system and its name, Indication Géographique Protegée,
is a pretty literal translation of the EU’s Protected Geographical Indication.
The system was enacted by law in 1973 but it wasn’t rolled out formally
until 1979 and was originally called the Vin de Pays, or country wine, level and it
took the title PGI in 2009. It was created as a less regulated tier than
the AOC, as a means to allow producers to make wines in a non-traditional and
experimental way but also to be able to market those wines without having to
identify them as table wine, the only other tier in the system, which was a
category that had extremely limited commercial potential. This level took on
the same significance in France that the IGT category would have for Italy and it
was especially important for allowing French wine producers to work on
developing quality wines based on single grape varieties, a style that hasn’t
traditionally been very important or emphasized in France. Though more could be added in the future there currently six regional IGP’s in France, all covering large areas and usually multiple wine regions.
They are the Comté-Tolosan that covers multiple wine regions in southwest
France. L’atlantique that covers Bordeaux and other nearby regions. Val de Loire
covering the large Loire Valley region Comtés Rhodaniens covering the northern
Rhone Valley, Savoy and the Jura. The Méditerranée covering the southern Rhône
and Provence and, finally, the Pays d’Oc covering the Languedoc-Roussillon area.
These six regions are subdivided into 52 departmental IGP’s and more
than 90 even smaller zonal IGP’s, and the different IGP’s relate to each other the
same way that the different AOC’s do. Finally, not all wine regions in France
have IGP’s much like not all wine regions in Italy
have IGT’s. At present, Champagne, Burgundy Beaujolais and Alsace don’t have IGP’s
and wine made in those regions that doesn’t conform to AOC guidelines has
to be declassified to the lowest tier of the quality pyramid, the Vin, or Wine
level, originally called Vin de Table or Table Wine. The grapes for wines in this
category can be from anywhere in France or the EU. If all the grapes come from
France, then a wine made at this tier can be classified as Vin de France. there are
very few regulations for wine made at this level apart from basic health and
safety rules. This category is not usually where you’re going to find wine
made with an eye to quality but there are exceptions especially in areas that
don’t have IGP’s and where producers working outside the AOC guidelines for
quality’s sake have to have their wines classified to this tier. Lastly, I should
mention that there was an additional tier on the quality pyramid up until
pretty recently, Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieur, or Delimited Superior Quality Wine, that was situated between the IGP, or Vin de Pays, level and the AOC, or AOP,
level. The idea was for it to function as a stepping stone for wines to move up to
the AOC level but that never really panned out and the category was
eliminated in 2011. It was never a big part of French production so you’re
actually unlikely to run into too many bottles with this designation, but it does
get referenced when discussing the French quality system and I’ve included it here
for the sake of completeness. That’s this wine cast; hopefully, it left
you with a better understanding of how French wines are classified and how
those classifications relate to the EU and to other countries. If you want to see
some pictures of classifications on French wine labels please check out the
cast on the EU classification system; there’s several of them there. Also,
please like and subscribe below and always feel free to leave a comment. I’m
the unknown wine caster and I’m out. As always, enjoy the grape, but always enjoy
it responsibly.

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