DYWK Country Series: France, Part I – French Wine Quality and Classification System

I felt like I just posted something yesterday here on W2WK. But upon logging in, I saw that it has been 1 month and 9 days since my last post. Yikes. (I just slapped my own hand and said, bad blogger!)  Oh well.  The good news is, new Wine Know has arrived!

Welcome to my first Country Series post! (DYWK = Did You Wine Know… one of my blog categories)  Here’s what I’m thinking about with this and subsequent posts in this series.  I’m thinking that enhancing my educational journey of wine via this blog requires me to know a little something about the wine producing nations of the world…. AND what differentiates them. I want to be able to say, with some confidence, “Oh I just LOVE wines from [insert country] because of [insert valid reason].”  Thus the reason for this series of posts.

So…. why start with France? I don’t know. Why NOT start with France?! When people think wine, they often think France. And since I’m not very clear on the differences between French wines both within France or how they compare to other countries, I thought this is a place that I (and maybe you, too) can build your Wine Know.  This Country Series will be in 3 parts:

  • Part I: French Wine Quality/Classification System
  • Part II: Key Wine Regions of France
  • Part III: French WInes with Food

DYWK Country Series: France, Part I – French Wine Quality and Classification System

Quality System: Before we get into the weeds of France’s quality system, you – like I – may be wondering what is a quality system? Basically, it is a set of legal requirements that a particular region must abide by when producing and labeling wine.  Each region has its own thang. Throughout the European Union, all wine producing countries have the same basic quality classification, which requires two steps or classifications; each winery must (1) produce table wine and (2) produce “quality” wine from a named growing area.  Table wine has less restrictions placed on it than quality wine.  Such restrictions can include things like the type of grape that can be used to make the wine, quantity of wine produced, amount of alcohol in the wine, etc.  All in all, the higher the quality classification, the more restrictions there are in the wine making process.

French Quality System: France meets the EU’s two required steps and raises it to… “complicated”.  There’s the old system which has been around since 1935, and a new system that started to “roll out” in 2010.

(Wino Side Comment… Why do we care about this?? Well, I care because I’m hoping that knowing the system by which the French classify their wines will help me to know what I’m selecting when in the France section of the wine store.  Hopefully, I will no longer have to base my decision on, “this one sounds very French with it’s ‘Ch’s’ and ‘eaux’s’, so therefore, it will be good.”)

Appellation d’ Originé Controlée (AOC): The old French classification system is called Appellation d’ Originé Controlée (AOC).  This system has two additional/intermediary classifications between the two required classifications (table and quality wines) in the overall EU system. You’ll see the wine quality classification on the label as one of these four:

  • Vin de Table (VdT) – the lowest quality and least regulated wine in the system. Well, it’s still heavily regulated, but the restrictions aren’t as strict.
  • Vin de Pays (VdP) – slightly higher quality than VdT but not as fancy as VDQS or AOC wines.  They are more regulated than VdT but not nearly as much as VDQS or AOC.
  • Vin Délimité de Qualitié Supériéure (VDQS) – these are wines that are basically on the waiting list to be considered an AOC wine. Quality is high, strictly regulated, but hasn’t achieved AOC status yet.  In fact, wineries have to wait 25 YEARS and continue producing wine classified as VDQS before they can be CONSIDERED FOR AOC status. The French DO take their wine seriously.
  • Appellation d’ Originé Controlée (AOC) – these are the cream of the crop and they rise to top… of the wine quality list in France. (I hope you are rapping these words to yourself now.)  If you have a bottle of AOC wine around, you probably spent some good money on it and you better make an event out of drinking it.

Appellation d’ Originé Protegé (AOP): So that’s the OLD system, and now there’s a NEW system.  This matters because you’ll still see old system labels on bottles for years to come. The new system, entitled Appellation d’ Originé Protegé (AOP), didn’t change anything with the VdT (table wine).  But it basically removed the previously required step of VDQS. Now, instead of waiting for 25 years to become the highest classification, you just have to pass the test.   So, in summary the AOP System is – from lowest quality to highest:

  • Vin de Table (VdT)
  • Indication Geographique Protege (IGP) – this was formerly the VdP step
  • Appellation d’ Origine Protege (AOP) – the highest quality wine in the new system and is basically the same as AOC

In summary, VDQS, AOC, and AOP wines are pretty fancy.  VdT and VdP are less fancy. Choose wisely based on your night of wine-ing.

Regulations: While I was trying to navigate my way through understanding the above classifications, I found it interesting to know how many aspects of the wine making process  in France are indeed regulated.  Here’s a sampling:

  • Area of Production – All wine areas are well defined in France and known as an “appellation”.  To be in the IGP, AOC, or AOP classification, the grapes must be from that particular area.
  • Variety of Grape – Each appellation has only specific grapes it can use to make wine.
  • Yield per Hectare – There is a designated amount of wine that can be produced in an appellation.
  • Vineyard Practices – This has to do with things like pruning the vines and irrigation.  For example, AOC/AOP wines are not allowed to be irrigated whereas IGP/VdP and VdT wines are.
  • Degree of Alcohol – There is a minimum and maximum level of alcohol permitted for different wine classifications.  AOC/AOP wines have an average of 11% and VdT has an average of 9% alcohol.
  • Winemaking Practices – Different practices are regulated (in order to be classified in the system) and includes things like wine aging requirements, etc.
  • Tasting and Analysis – This is a chemical analysis that all AOC/AOP wines must go through to ensure they actually taste like the appellation from which they come.

If you got through that list, then I imagine you are feeling like I felt after getting through it.  Which is basically, “Wowsas! That’s a lot of rules.”

That concludes Part I of this Country Series.  And it’s a lot of info to digest – hopefully you made it this far into the post!  Between now and the next Country Series post (next Wednesday!), go to the wine store, look at the French section and see what you find with the different classifications on the labels!

Source of Wine Know in this post primarily came from: The Wine Bible and The International Wine Guild.

Comments

  1. couuusin E says:

    Love this! While reading this fancy post on the fancy French, I felt like I was starting to make parallels to my Italian wine knowledge – AOCs/AOPs sound a lot like DOCGs. Very cool stuff W2WK!

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