The European Union and French Wine Classification Systems

The European Union

The French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, governed by the Institut national des appellations d’origine (INAO), dates back to 1935. It has inspired or influenced many other national systems and, ultimately, the European Union (EU) wine laws.

The EU wine laws require that wines produced within the EU be divided into two quality categories, Table Wines (TW) and Quality Wines Produced in Specified Regions (QWpsr), each with different rules for winemaking practices and labelling. The TW and QWpsr categories are adapted into different national classification systems across the EU member states. Some member states have more than two levels of classification, but each level fits into either TW or QWpsr.

Many winemaking practices depend on the classification of the wine as either TW or QWpsr, but some, such as deacidification and chaptalization, depend on where the grapes are grown. Thus, every EU wine growing region belongs to one of six wine growing zones, with Zone A the coolest and Zone C III b the warmest.

As of 2011, the TW and QWpsr quality categories have been replaced with, respectively, Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Protected Designation of Origin (PDO).


French law divides wine into four categories:

• Vin de Table

– The label only specifies the producer and the fact that the wine is from France.

• Vin de Pays

– The label specifies a particular French region, département, or delimited area, for example, Vin de Pays d’Oc or Vin de Pays de Vaucluse. The wine has to be made from certain grape varieties or blends and the producer has to submit the wine for analysis and tasting. Maximum or minimum limits are placed on yields, alcohol, pH, and sulphur dioxide. In particular, the designation enables French producers to make non-traditional blends and varietal wines to compete with those from the New World.

• Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS)

– Abolished in 2011, the VDQS category was mostly interpreted as a stepping-stone to AOC status.

• Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

– Specifies a delimited terroir together with a number of rules and restrictions governing such factors as grape varieties, blends, training systems, yields, and winemaking methods. There are currently over 300 AOC wines. Some, such as Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, are the size of a vineyard; others, such as Alsace AOC, are rather more expansive (and therefore also less restrictive).

In recent years, a new system has been introduced with three rather than four categories. The three categories are:

• Vin de France

– Essentially replaces Vin de Table but enables grape variety or grape varieties and vintage to be indicated on the label. This gives French producers greater flexibility in production, blending, and branding to compete with wines from other countries.

• Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP)

– Essentially replaces Vin de Pays.

• Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP)

– Essentially replaces AOC.

Vin de France and IGP fit into the EU’s PGI category, and AOP into the PDO category.

Posted in Jargon Buster | 1 Comment

The Black Wines of Cahors

In France, the South West wine region includes several disparate appellations situated south of, and inland from, Bordeaux. The most notable of these appellations are Cahors, Madiran, and Jurançon.

The ‘black wines’ of Cahors, the spiritual home of the Malbec grape (called ‘Cot’ in Cahors), enjoyed a splendid reputation in the Middle Ages and right up into the 19th century.

In the late 19th century, phylloxera reared its ugly head, and, in 1956, the Great Frost killed off all but 1% of the vines. Unsurprisingly, the area has taken a long time to recover.

Cahors is equidistant from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Compared to Bordeaux, the winters are colder, but the summers are hotter and drier.

The vineyards are planted on gravelly slopes in the valley of the River Lot and up on the causse or limestone plateau. The plateau yields more tannic, longer-lived wines, while the slopes and alluvial valley floor yield softer, fruitier wines.

The appellation is for red wine only, with Malbec making up at least 70% of the blend and Merlot and Tannat accounting for any remainder.

Cahors can be reminiscent of Bordeaux, but is darker in colour with more plum, chocolate, and minerals and heavier tannins that can make it austere and unapproachable in its youth. With age, it develops aromas of earth, forest floor, and animal. Acidity is high and body and alcohol only medium. The best examples are aged in oak.

Compared to Cahors, Argentine Malbec is softer and riper with a heavier body, higher alcohol, and lower acidity.

Some notable producers of Cahors include Clos Triguedina, Château de Chambert, Château Lamartine, Château Eugénie, Château du Cèdre, and Château Lagrezette.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Fifty Shades of Cabernet: Assessing the Colour of a Wine

Burgundy Chardonnay in the glass

Burgundy Chardonnay in the glass

On a white background (for example, a sheet of paper), examine the colour of the wine.

Look at the wine from above to assess the depth of colour, which can be gauged from the visibility of the stem of the glass.

Then gently tilt the glass and inspect the liquid to confirm its colour and clarity. Especially with red wines, the colour at the centre or ‘core’ may differ from that at the edge or ‘rim’.

White wines range in colour from watery-white through to green, lemon, straw, golden, and even coppery-orange in the case of certain dessert wines. Wines at the ‘greener’ end of the spectrum are usually paler and vice versa.

Red wines range in colour from orange-red through to brick-red, ruby, violet, and indigo—or even ‘black’ for the inkiest wines. However pale or opaque, red wines almost invariably start off as ‘red’ or ‘purple’; with age, the colour softens, leading to more orange hues.

Rosés are typically described as orange, salmon, or pink.

Interpreting the colour

White wines that are fermented or matured in oak barrels are often deeper in colour than those fermented in inert vessels. In contrast, red wines fermented in oak tend to be paler or softer in colour, and red rather than purple.

As they age, white wines become deeper in colour and red wines paler. Indeed, with increasing age, both white and red wines tend towards the same shade of orange-brown.

A pronounced colour gradient from core to rim (typically red and darker in the core, and bronze and lighter at the rim) is a particular feature of red wines with significant bottle age.

In forming conclusions about bottle age oak treatment, do not rely solely on colour; seek to confirm your initial impressions on the nose and palate. Never fall into the trap of shoe-horning a wine into an initial impression: if something doesn’t quite add up, you have probably got it wrong.

With young red wines and rosés, depth of colour is a function of duration of skin contact and thickness of the skins. Thin-skinned grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Tempranillo impart relatively little colour compared to thick-skinned grape varieties such as Tannat, Malbec, and Corvina.

Apart from providing a clue about grape variety, depth of colour also provides a clue about climate and, by extension, origin. High sunshine hours bring out deeper, purpler hues in a wine. Thus, Pinot Noir from Central Otago is typically darker than that from Beaune; and whereas Malbec from Cahors is deep purple, Malbec from Mendoza is inky black.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Blind Tasting | Leave a comment

The Art of Food and Wine Matching

Shiraz is a classic partner for red meats.

Shiraz is a classic partner for red meats.

In many European wine regions, the wines and culinary traditions developed reciprocally such that the wines naturally pair with the regional fare. Many of these so-called ‘food wines’ can seem overly tart or tannic if drunk on their own, but come alive once paired with food, and, in particular, those foods that they co-evolved with. If you respect these time-honored pairings, you are much less likely to go wrong.

Otherwise, you need to choose what to put into focus: the food or the wine. For instance, if it is the wine that you wish to emphasize, pick a dish that is slightly lighter and complements rather than competes with it. Take care not to pick a dish that is too light or it will be overwhelmed by the wine: although you want the wine to lead, you want the dish to follow closely behind. If it is the food that you wish to emphasize, you are effectively using the wine as a sauce or spice. In all instances, your aim is for the wine to bring out the best in the food, and the food the best in the wine. This is certainly the case with such classic pairings as Muscadet and oysters, Claret and lamb, and Sauternes and Roquefort.

Taste, however, is subjective, and there cannot and should not be rigid rules for pairing foods and wines. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the wine lover is in experimenting with combinations and, in so doing, multiplying the flavours, textures, and sensations of everyday life.  That having been said, you need to be versed in the principles that you may or may not decide to break.

First, identify the dominant component of your dish. For example, the dominant component of fish served in a creamy sauce is more likely to be the creamy sauce than the fish itself. Then pick a wine that either complements or contrasts with the dominant component. Examples of complementary pairings are, a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc with sole in a lemon sauce, an earthy Pinot Noir with a mushroom dish, or a peppery Syrah with a steak in peppercorn sauce.

Four important elements to bear in mind are weight, acidity, tannins, and sweetness. The weight and texture of a wine is determined by such factors as alcohol level, amount of extract and tannin, and winemaking processes such as extended maceration, lees ageing, and oaking. In general, lighter wines pair with lighter foods, whereas heavier, more robust wines pair with heavier, more rustic foods. Good examples of pairings by weight are Chardonnay and lobster or Chardonnay and roast chicken.

Acidity stimulates appetite and cuts through heaviness, explaining the success of such contrasting pairings as Sancerre and goat cheese, Alsatian Riesling and pork belly, and Tokay and foie gras. In all cases, the wine must be at least as acidic as the dish, and preferably more so: if not, the wine is going to seem thin or insipid.

Tannins can lend chalkiness or grittiness to a wine, and also bitter astringency. Tannins bind to and react with proteins in food, by which process they are ‘softened’. While tannic wines go hand in hand with red meats and cheeses, they pair poorly with spicy or sweet dishes, which can accentuate their bitterness and astringency, and also with fish oils, which can make them come off as ‘metallic’.

A sweet dish requires a wine that is just as sweet or sweeter, or else the wine will be overpowered by the dish. Sweetness balances heat and spiciness, and also contrasts with saltiness, as, for example, in the case of vintage Port and Stilton. Conversely, alcohol accentuates the heat in spicy food and vice versa. So much explains why Mosel Riesling, which is both high in residual sugar and low in alcohol, is often an excellent choice for spicy food. However, very spicy food will overwhelm almost any wine, so pair with some other beverage such as water, beer, or lassi. Some foods are difficult to pair with wine, most notably chocolate, eggs, fresh tomatoes, and asparagus.

Finally, remember to match your wine also to the occasion, your companions, the season, the weather, the time of day or night, and your mood and tastes. If you are serving more than one wine, think about your line up and make it as varied or interesting or educational as possible.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Short History of German Wine

The Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard in the Mosel

The Wehlener Sonnenuhr vineyard in the Mosel

Wine is mostly produced in the southwest of the country, along the River Rhine and its tributaries.

The Romans founded Trier (Augusta Treverorum), modern Germany’s most ancient city, on the Mosel. In 370, Ausonius lauded the beauty of the region’s steep vineyards in his poem Mosella. Little is known about the style or quality of these and other early ‘German’ wines, although, in about 570, the poet Venantius Fortunatus did make mention of a red wine from the region.

During the Middle Ages, Christianity spread east, bringing with it churches and monasteries and the cultivation of the vine. Riesling is first documented in or near the Rheingau from 1435, and Pinot Noir from 1470.

However, the most common grape varieties in the 15th century were Elbing and Silvaner, probably planted pêle-mêle along with other varieties such as Muskat and Traminer.

Viticulture reached a high point around 1500, with the area under vines four times larger than today. The vines receded for a number of reasons including competition from beer, the Thirty Year’s War (which ended in 1648 with Alsace becoming a French province), the expropriation of the monasteries, and the Little Ice Age, which made viticulture difficult in more marginal climates.

Paradoxically, quality improved as unsuitable land was abandoned and lesser grape varieties were replaced with Riesling. The first Riesling monoculture was planted in 1720 at Schloss Johannisberg, then a Benedictine abbey in the Rheingau.

In 1775, the courier delivering the permission to begin the harvest arrived at Schloss Johannisberg so late that most of the fruit had been affected by Botrytis. This vintage of ‘rotten’ grapes became legendary, inaugurating a number of late harvest styles.

In the early 1800s, Napoleonic France seized the Church’s vineyards and parcelled them out. Owing to strict inheritance laws, vineyards became ever smaller, creating an important demand for co-operatives.

At the height of their renown in the 19th century, the wines of the Rhine could fetch higher prices than first growth Bordeaux.

But then came vine diseases, wars, and economic upheaval.

Whatever remained of the lustre of the golden age was completely tarnished in the 1970s when Germany began blending and exporting cheap semi-sweet wines such as Liebfraumilch that, in foreign eyes, came to epitomize the country’s entire wine offering.

However, among enthusiasts, Germany’s reputation is still founded on aromatic, elegant, complex, and long- lived Rieslings that range across the entire spectrum of sweetness.

The best examples are among the finest wines in the world and quite enough to make anyone believe in a Roman Catholic God.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Wines of Piedmont


Piedmont means ‘at the foot of the mountain’. The region is enclosed to the north and west by the Alps and to the south by the Apennines, which seal it off from Liguria and the Mediterranean coast. Much of the terrain is unsuited to viticulture, consisting either of mountains or the flat valley of the River Po, which opens out onto Lombardy in the east. The principal wine areas are situated in the Alpine foothills to the east and southeast of the regional capital of Turin, around the centres of Alba and Asti.

Piedmont boasts more DOCGs and DOCs, and produces more quality wine, than any other Italian region including Veneto and Tuscany. Although especially noted for Barolo and Barbaresco, production is dominated by Asti and Moscato d’Asti and, to a lesser extent, Barbera d’Asti. Unusually, there is no regional IGP/IGT; instead, the region is covered by the generic DOC appellations of Piemonte, Langhe, and Monferrato.

As may be inferred from the geography, winters in Piedmont are harsh, but the ripening season is long and relatively dry. The principal black grape varieties are Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto; the principal white grape varieties are Moscato, Cortese, and Arneis. Nebbiolo and Barbera tend to be planted on warmer sites, Dolcetto and Moscato on cooler sites. Several other indigenous and international grape varieties are also planted.


Although Barbera is the most planted grape variety, Nebbiolo is the most noble, not only in Piedmont but also in Italy. It is very late to ripen, with harvests typically taking place in mid-to-late October, after the autumn fogs (nebbie) have risen. Nebbiolo underlies several DOCs and DOCGs, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero, and Gattinara.

Back in 1980, Barolo obtained one of the first three Italian DOCGs together with Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The Barolo delimited area lies in the Langhe hills south of Alba and the River Tanaro. The bulk of it sits on five communes: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba. Though smallish, the area harbours a plethora of subtly different mesoclimates, soil types, altitudes, and aspects. Broadly speaking, it consists of two valleys: the Central Valley encompassing the communes of Barolo and La Morra, and, to the east, the Serralunga Valley encompassing the communes of Castiglione Falleto, Monteforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba. The soils are primarily calcareous clay, but those of the Central Valley are richer in calcareous marl and yield more delicate and perfumed wines, while those of the Serralunga Valley are richer in sandstone and yield more full-bodied and tannic wines.


Average holding size is very small and emphasis on quality very strong, leading to comparisons with Burgundy. Although there is no official cru system as in Burgundy, some vineyards are considered superior and their wines priced accordingly. DOCG regulations for Barolo call for 38 months ageing (62 months for the Riserva), of which at least 18 in oak—traditionally large casks (botti) to avoid contributing even more tannins to the wine.

Although full-bodied, Barolo is light in colour, typically with a brick or rust red tinge that can make it seem older, sometimes much older, than it really is. The nose is potentially very complex and often short-handed as ‘tar and roses’. Other notes include damsons, mulberries, dried fruit, violets, herbs, dark chocolate, liquorice, and, with increasing age, leather, camphor, tobacco, forest floor, mushrooms, and truffles. The palate is marked by high acidity and alcohol, and, above all, very high tannins, which, in the best of cases, are experienced as a silky or velvety texture.

There is also a more modern, earlier drinking style of Barolo that is fruitier and less austere, often with obvious new French oak influence. Some traditional producers argue that the more modern style is unfaithful to the spirit of Barolo, and seem to be gaining the upper hand in the ‘Barolo Wars’ against the modernists. However, even the staunchest traditionalists employ some modern techniques in their wineries, and, at least in that much, their Barolo is a compromise between the traditional and the modern.


Barbaresco lies to the east of Alba, fewer than 10 miles from Barolo with which it is often compared. The delimited area is considerably smaller than that of Barolo and can be broadly divided into three areas: Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive. The soils of calcareous marl are similar to those of Barolo but lighter and more uniform. The climate is warmer and drier, enabling the grapes to ripen a full fortnight earlier.

In terms of style, there is some overlap with Barolo, but Barbaresco tends to be more feminine, that is, more aromatic, elegant, and refined, with softer fruit and suppler, riper tannins. Although tight and tannic in its youth, it requires less cellaring time and is less long-lived. According to DOCG regulations, it must be aged for one year fewer than Barolo. The region’s star producer is Gaja. Note that wines from Barolo and Barbaresco can, if required, be declassified to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC.

Other notable Piedmont Nebbiolos

Roero is a small, recently promoted, DOCG that lies across the river from Barbaresco. The soils are sandier than in the Langhe, resulting in a wine that is lighter, more delicate, and earlier maturing. DOCG regulations stipulate that Roero must contain 95-98% Nebbiolo and 2-5% Arneis, and be aged for 20 months (32 months for the Riserva) of which six in cask.

Further north, north of Novara, are the small, neighbouring areas of Gattinara and Ghemme. The climate here is cooler than in the Langhe, and, despite the steep south-facing slopes, the wines are even more tannic, acidic, and long-lived than Barolo. Gattinara DOCG consists of 90% Nebbiolo (Spanna) along with Bonarda (Uva Rara) and Vespolina to ‘soften’ the wine. Ghemme DOCG consists of the same blend, but with 75% Nebbiolo. Both Gattinara and Ghemme must be aged for at least three years prior to release.

The best Nebbiolo wine from outside Piedmont is Valtellina Superiore DOCG from Lombardy.


Barbera accounts for half of Piedmontese plantings. Although it plays second fiddle to Nebbiolo, it can produce wines of great distinction, especially within the delimited areas of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, and Barbera d’Alba DOC (which overlaps with Barolo and Barbaresco). Compared to Nebbiolo, it is higher yielding and earlier ripening, and much more adaptable.

In the mid-1980s a number of Piedmontese producers added methanol to their Barberas, killing over thirty people and blinding many more. Barbera’s reputation is still recovering from this scandal.

Barbera ranges in style from light and delicate to heavy and powerful. It is typically deep ruby in colour with an intense and mouth-filling fruitiness (often dominated by black cherries), very high acidity, low tannins, and a dry finish. Some modern examples are aged in oak, which imparts tannins and notes of vanilla and spice.

Dolcetto and other black grape varieties

Being adaptable and early to ripen, Dolcetto is often planted on cooler, less distinguished sites. It is generally made as a simple and undemanding ‘early to market’ wine, generating income for the producer while his Nebbiolos and Barberas are still maturing. Dolcetto skins are rich in anthocyanins, yielding a dark colour that ranges from deep ruby to purple. A short and gentle fermentation that aims to limit tannin extraction produces a wine that is soft, fruity, and uncomplicated—often thought of as Italy’s best answer to Beaujolais. Notes of black cherry, soft spice, and liquorice are accompanied by moderate acidity, high alcohol, and a characteristic dry, bitter almond finish. Piedmont has a number of DOCGs and DOCs for Dolcetto, most notably Dogliani DOCG and Dolcetto d’Alba DOC.

Other black grape varieties in Piedmont include Grignolino, Freisa, and Brachetto, the latter being made into a medium sweet, semi-sparkling wine.


The spiritual home of Cortese is in the steep chalk-clay hills around Gavi in the far southeast corner of Piedmont. Its most famous incarnation is Cortese di Gavi DOCG, the first Italian white wine to achieve international acclaim. Cortese di Gavi from Gavi itself is labelled ‘Gavi di Gavi’. Cortese wines are characterized by their zesty acidity, which can be searing in cooler vintages. Cortese di Gavi is light and dry, fruity and floral, with notes of lime, peach, and white flowers, hints of grass or herbs, and a citrusy finish. The wine can improve with some age.


The historical function of Arneis (Piemontese, ‘little rascal’) was to soften and perfume Nebbiolo. Despite being difficult to grow, naturally lacking in acidity, and prone to oxidation, Arneis can yield delicate and characterful wines. It is most at home in the Roero Hills, and, in the main, bottled as either Roero Arneis DOCG or Langhe DOC. It is rather full-bodied, oaked or unoaked, with dominant notes of ripe pears, apricots, white flowers, and hops, and a dry finish with an aftertaste of almonds.

The principal white grape variety in Piedmont is neither Cortese nor Arneis but Moscato, which underpins sparkling Asti and semi-sparkling Moscato d’Asti. We discuss these Moscato wines further in our book.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Italy | Leave a comment

Common Wine Faults and How To Detect Them


Cork taint

True cork taint is due to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), formed when certain phenolic compounds react with chlorine-containing compounds used as disinfectants. This need not result from the cork, as TCA is also found in barrels and other winery equipment. If there is a high degree of cork taint, the wine smells musty (‘like wet cardboard’) and falls flat on the palate, without fruit or vibrancy. Some people are very sensitive to cork taint, others much less so.


The benefits or otherwise of Brettanomyces in a wine is a controversial topic. The yeast is encouraged by a lack of hygiene in the winery. Some claim that it lends added complexity to a wine in the form of horsey or farmyard notes. Others claim that it is a taint that overlies the natural fruit character of the wine with ‘unclean’ notes of sticking plaster or rancid cheese. Some of the world’s finest wines, most notably older vintages of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, carry an unmistakeable trace of Brett. Whether this is a benefit or a fault is ultimately a matter of personal preference; the least that can be said is that Brett should never dominate a wine.

Other microorganisms

If active yeasts and fermentable sugars remain in a wine, it will continue to ferment in bottle. This second fermentation and the carbon dioxide released is exactly what is wanted in traditional method sparking wine (see Chapter X) but not in other wines which will become inappropriately cloudy and fizzy. In severe cases, the bottle may even burst. Off-dry and semi-sweet wines are particularly susceptible to a second fermentation, and care must be taken to remove or kill all yeast cells prior to bottling.

Similarly, bacteria within the bottle can cause a wine to go off. Lactic acid bacteria make a wine smell like mouse droppings, while acetic acid bacteria convert ethanol to acetic acid, the acid ingredient in vinegar. Acetic acid reacts with ethanol to form ethyl acetate, an ester that makes the wine smell like nail varnish. A small amount of this so-called volatile acidity can be tolerable, but, given time, the wine will go to vinegar.

Oxidation and reduction

Oxidation is probably the source of most wine faults, although consumers often mistake the musty note of oxidation for cork taint. For both red and white wines, excess exposure to oxygen (beyond the small amount required for the development of tertiary notes) gradually leads to a brownish colour. The wine loses its fruit character, which is replaced by a musty, dusty, ‘flat’ note reminiscent of beef stock. Oxidation may result from careless winemaking, an inadequately sealed bottle, or inadequate packaging. Corks degrade over time, especially if the bottle is stored upright so that the liquid is no longer in contact with the surface of the cork, and most cellaring companies offer a re-corking service for old bottles. Note that some wines, such as madeira or tawny port, are made in a deliberately oxidative style that is part of their character and appeal.

Reduction is the opposite chemical reaction to oxidation and occurs when the wine is deprived of oxygen. Oxygen prevents the conversion of sulphur dioxide dissolved in the wine to hydrogen sulphide, a gas with an unpleasant smell of rotten eggs or drains. Reductive taint is most common in bottles sealed by a screw cap, which forms an airtight seal and prevents the wine from ‘breathing’. Mild reductive taint ought to disappear as soon as the wine is swirled around in the glass and exposed to air. Severe reductive taint can be treated with a copper coin, which leads the sulphide ions to precipitate out of the wine.

Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.

Posted in Blind Tasting | Leave a comment