Grapes at Domaine Leduc-Frouin

ripening grapes in the Loire

ripening grapes in the Loire

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French wine classification

French wine label - Cour-Cheverny AC Domaine des HuardsThe French wine laws are idisyncratic and a little obscure – infuriating too, as with the exception of Alsace, the grape variety cannot be mentioned on the label of AC (Appellation Controllée) wines. So whilst South American Malbec is easily recognised on the supermarket shelf, the wines of Cahors, made from the same grape, remains a mystery to most consumers. Not only that but the scope for confusion in a country with 450 AOCs, and 140 vins de pays is substantial. Bordeaux alone has over 50 separate appellation names which can be on the bottle!

The proclaimed aim of the French wine appellations is to safeguard both the geographic origins of specific wines, and to control their “typicity” but restricting the grape varieties which may be used for a particular wine, and sometimes even requiring a minimum or maximum percentage of specified grape varietals. It is also claimed that this provides a quality guarantee, but that is questionable. However, you can be confident that, for example, a Cahors AC wine will have been produced in a specified area around the town of Cahors, and that it will contain at least 70% Malbec (locally known as Cot or Auxerrois), the other permitted grapes being Tannat, Merlot and Jurancon Noir. There will also be some restrictions on yield (hectolitres per hectare), maturity (sugar) levels, and approved methods of pruning etc. That said, there is a wide variation in quality in this and most other appellations, but there will be some limited consistency in style, due to the grape varieties and climatic conditions. In many ways the AC system is probably designed more to protect the authenticity and provenance of the wine, than to serve the needs of the consumer. (AC status started originally to prevent producers or merchants calling their wine “Nuits St Georges”, or “Champagne” or “Chateauneuf-du-Pape” when there was no connection whatever with those places.)

There are various levels of presumed quality:-

Vin de Table – few restrictions – can be blended from different regions, even different countries within the EU – usually basic wine.

Vin de Pays – probably the most widely seen label – especially from the Languedoc (Vin de Pays d’Oc) – restricted to specified, but often large geographical areas (e.g.Loire Valley) with few restrictions on grape varieties, but some control on yield and sugar levels. As such it includes many reasonable wines – and some gems because growers have used the relative freedom to produce wines which do not conform to the traditional style.

VDQS – Vins Délimité de Qualité Superieure – an Appellation Controllée but with wider limits on grape selection and viticulture than AC – generally used as a transitional stage between Vin de Pays and full AC – allowing producers to improve their techniques and to converge their approach.

Appellation d’Origine Controllée (AC or AoC) the strict control of many aspects of the wine production process, sometimes involving a “tasting” panel – but as this is administered locally it is unlikely to apply a very high threshold.

In Bordeaux and Burgundy there are further classifications – generally the more specific the AC name, the more limited are the producer’s options.

A cynic would suggest that the system relies more on political influence than on quality or character distinctiveness. I suspect few experts could consistently differentiate between the 14 appellations in Beaujolais, where every wine is made solely from the Gamay grape – and yet it was only a few years ago that the 14th was added – Regnié.

For the consumer the AC system does offer a limited indication of style and quality, but increasingly it is worth finding individual producers who make consistently good and interesting wines, regardless of the AC level. There are undoubtedly some fabulous Vins de Pays which outshine more prestigious AC wines, and often at a lower price.

However, the French system of wine control is excessively bureaucratic and slow to adapt. It would help consumers and producers immeasurably if an indication of grape variety could be included on the label, rather than arrogantly assuming that everyone knows that Vouvray is made from Chenin Blanc, or Madiran is mainly Tannat! There are suggestions of changes in Bordeaux, forced on it by poor sales (and often disappointing quality), but elsewhere the old regime prevails!

Whilst there are still some complacent French wine makers around who rely on the name of the wine to sell it, there are many committed and exciting winemakers throughout France making tremendously good wines – see Andrew Jefford’s recent book “The New France” for confirmation and masses of good writing about the new wine landscape of France. Go back

New Appellations

Côtes de Bordeaux AC (see above)

Beaumes de Venise AC
– Reds in the Southern Rhone

Saint Sardos VDQS
– was a Vin de Pays in Midi-Pyrenees south of Montauban and Fronton.

Vins De Pays d’Atlantique
is expected to include all grape varieties from the Charente, Dordogne, Lot et Garonne and Gironde – and potentially the Pays Basque (from 2006)

Fronton AC
is the new name for what was known as the “Côtes du Frontonnais” in SW France, near Montauban.

Download a pocket guide to French wines here

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