Choosing a bottle of wine can be hard work. The label on a bottle of wine can be so filled with jargon that it’s nigh on impossible to know what you’re letting yourself in for. European wine law, in particular, can be very complex, with all sorts of fiddly regulations that unless you’re up to speed with all the legal minutiae it can be difficult to make an informed choice. Doubtless, this is why many New World wine ‘brands’ have become so successful over the last couple of decades with their simple labeling of grape varietal, vintage and producer displayed prominently. There is, however, a worrying trend in some New World wines to start naming their wines after obscure pieces of farm equipment, a long-lost relative, or a local mythological beast, and to expect that the consumer will know what sort of wine this bottle contains!
Nevertheless, in all cases, a little bit of background knowledge can go a long way in deciphering the hieroglyphs on a wine label. Over a series of posts I will attempt to break through some of the jargon associated with wine labeling and to clarify the situation.
My first topic is the legal classification of wines in France.
European (i.e. the EU) wine law allows for two broad classifications of wine: Quality Wine and Table Wine. ‘Quality wine’ is often known by the cumbersome acronym QWPSR (Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region), and, due to strict laws controlling the production of these wines, is the higher quality product.
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC)
Within the ‘Quality wine’ umbrella, in France you have two further levels. The top level is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC or AOC). This is a notation you can expect to see on the label of quality French wine. An appellation is a term to denote a specific geographical region that has its own distinct laws for wine making. These laws control aspects such as the physical boundaries of vineyards, whether a wine has to made on the vine-grower’s estate or otherwise, the permitted grape varieties, pruning and planting techniques, vinification and ageing methods and other details. An appellation can be very large; for instance you may see wine labeled with Bordeaux AC, meaning the grapes could be sourced from anywhere within the large Bordeaux region. Or it can be very small: Pauillac AC is a tiny sub-region of the Haut-Médoc, itself a smaller region of the wider Bordeaux viticultural area.
In general, the more specific an appellation is, the more controlled the vine-growing and wine-making practices are likely to be, thus the wine has received more attention, hopefully resulting in a higher-quality product! How do you know what these rules are regulations governing an appellation are? There’s no easy answer here I’m afraid, as there are many hundreds of AC regions in France alone. However, by looking for the ‘AC’ on the label, you will be able to tell what the appellation is, and look it up if you like.
Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS)
This is largely an obsolete category now. It was originally a ‘stepping stone’ designation from the lower quality Table Wine up to the AC wine. Many of these wine regions have since qualified for AC status and hence, VDQS now accounts for less than 1% of French wine production.
Vin de Pays
The Vin de Pays category consists of the higher quality tier of French Table Wine. There are some laws prescribing geographical locations and grape varietal, along with a maximum yield of grape tonnage per unit area. However, these laws are significantly less stringent than the Appellation Contrôlée laws. Vin de Pays constitutes about 20% of France’s wine output. The label will indicate the vintage and often the dominant grape in the wine, however you should remember that there may be a percentage of other grapes included in the blend. The words “Vin de Pays de ___” will appear on the label, with the blank space indicating the region of origin of this wine.
There are numerous vin de pays locales. They range in size from huge multi-departmental areas to fairly small regional areas. Perhaps the most important of all these is the Vin de Pays d’Oc, which covers the large regions of Languedoc and Rousillon.
Vin de Table
Vins de Table make up the lowest tier of French wine, and account for about 30% of production. You are unlikely to see any of it on the export market (although there is a move to introduce a “Vin de France” category in order to produce huge quantities of generic wine that would compete for market share with the similar wines coming out of Australia, California and South Africa). Currently the only restrictions on vins de table is that the grapes must be sourced from and the wine made in France, and chaptalisation (adding sugar to increase the fermented alcohol limit) is forbidden. The region (other than ‘France’), vintage or grape variety must not be stated on the label.