One of the keys that unlocks an understanding of French wines is some knowledge of the regions and, within those, the appellations of France. A region such as Burgundy has literally dozens of appellations within it such as the tiny La Romanée (only 0.8 hectares), Corton-Charlemagne, Batard-Montrachet and Chitry.
The Loire Valley also has many, many appellations covering a huge area through that giant valley. Well-known appellations such as Touraine, Sancerre and Anjou sit cheek-by-jowl with tiny upstarts such as Cour-Cheverny, Coteaux du Giennois, Chateaumeillant and Jasnieres.
One reason why it is necessary to understand appellations is that unlike the new world of Australia, the United States, South America and South Africa, grape varieties are rarely displayed on wine labels in France. (Like every rule there is an exception with the wines of Alsace in north eastern France often bearing the grape variety on the label.)
You simply have to know that a particular appellation requires that certain grape varieties be used in wine production in that region. Thus in Burgundy it is most likely that a red wine will be made from 100% Pinot Noir and a white wine from 100% Chardonnay. However, while this is the most likely outcome, there are some other grape varieties such as Aligote, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne permitted in some of the appellations of Burgundy.
If you see a wine from the Loire region and it is a white wine then it is likely to be made from Chenin Blanc if it is from the western section near the Atlantic but there is increasing use of Sauvignon Blanc as you go up-river towards Sancerre. It is also likely that wines will be made from a blend of grape varieties. So we are likely to see Chenin Blanc blended with Chardonnay near the Atlantic and Sauvignon Blanc blended with Chardonnay in the Touraine appellation.
There are also exceptions such as near Tours where there is an appellation called Cour-Cheverny that uses only the obscure Romorantin grape (which originally same from Burgundy but is no longer used there).
Red wines from the Loire are usually made from Cabernet Franc in the west and increasingly use Pinot Noir and Gamay as you get closer to Burgundy. Thus the appellation of Touraine which is in the Loire but not very far from Burgundy uses a mix of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc as well as Gamay in the red wines produced there.
The southern Rhone, on the other hand, is quite different. You really have to know each individual supplier to know what grapes make up the wine because there are so many grape varieties permitted . In fact in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation there are thirteen different grape varieties allowed (there is actually fifteen but two grapes have both a white and a red variety). However, if it is a red wine you can confidently bet that there will be a significant amount of either Grenache or Syrah (Shiraz) or both with supporting acts such as Mourvèdre and Counoise.
Overview of French wine appellations
Perhaps the earliest attempt to classify wines in France occurred in the 14th century when the princes of Béarne classified the vineyards of Jurançon in south west France. These wines were popular all over Europe at the time.
French wine classification entered a new era when in 1855 Bordeaux on the west coast of France produced a classification which divided the best vineyards into five levels of quality with the highest level going to five famous vineyards in the communes of Paulliac, Margaux and Pessac. These were Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour, Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.
But this was a classification of vineyards not regions. Even in the one commune, a vineyard such as Chateau Latour was classified as Premieres Cru while another such as Chateau Lynches-Bages was classified as a fifth growth.
In the early years of the 20th century there was a lot of bad wine produced in France. Many talked about the need to introduce some control into vineyard practices, the making of the wine and the marketing of wine.
Some attempts were made to establish regional appellations and to ensure that only grapes grown in that region were used in wines that were labelled as such. Examples were Banyuls near the Mediterranean border with Spain and Bordeaux on the west coast of France.
However there was no control over the types of grape that could be grown, the yields from the vineyard, the pruning methods or harvesting techniques let alone the way in which the wine was made.
Some visionaries could see that more needed to be done. Much credit for driving reform is given to Baron le Roy and his pioneering work in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone just north of the historic city of Avignon. His work helped convince the authorities to undertake the formation of the INAO in 1935 (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) as the body with the legal responsibility for administering appellations in France. The INAO is to this day the ruling body in France for the rules that govern the appellations.
They introduced a system of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) or Appellation Contrôlée (AC) in its shortened version, where a set of strict rules, often overseen by a local committee, was introduced. These rules covered the permitted grape types which are explicitly stated, the communes in which the grapes can be grown, the maximum permitted yields (often around 50 hectolitres per hectare), the pruning type and the permitted harvesting techniques in some appellations.
The INAO quickly recognised a number of appellations including Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone, Cassis in coastal Provence, Arbois in eastern France, Blaye, Bourg, Sauternes, Barsac and others in the Bordeaux region, and Gevrey-Chambertin, La Romanée, Romanée Conti, Romanée Saint-Vivant and Musigny in Burgundy (among others). In fact, during 1936, some 57 appellations were proclaimed with AOC status in a series of announcements starting on the 15th May (when Arbois, Tavel and Cassis were nominated) and running through to 8th December which saw 12 more appellations nominated including the tiny Château Grillet, Néac, Pomerol, Vougeot, Vouvray as well as others.
This work was interrupted by the Second World War but resumed soon after with the formation of a second tier called the Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS). The idea was that regions wanting to gain AOC status might first be granted VDQS status prior to elevation to AOC. It also allowed some status for regions that were marginal and might not ever gain AOC recognition.
Two more levels of recognition were later established (not under the control of INAO) namely Vin de Pays and Vin de Table and these are described in more detail at the end of this discussion.
What can we infer from AOC status?
So does this mean that all AOCs are created equal? Will a wine from one AOC be as exciting to drink as one from a different AOC in a different part of the country?
The answer is a resounding no. Even within one region there are marked variations. No-one would claim that a velvet wine from the tiny (less than one hectare) La Romanée appellation is matched by a Pinot Noir from the broad Macon area further to the south (although there are some beautifully-crafted wines there).
Possibly the most contentious decision of the INAO was to disallow the publication of grape varieties on wine labels except in Alsace (although they have relented somewhat recently with the recent introduction of the Vin de France category).
The INAO has always been a supporter of the concept of terroir. They believe that it is the soil and the local climate and the vegetation and other local influences that determines the character of a wine.
This is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in the appellation of Sancerre. Here white wines of piercing, yet restrained elegance are crafted from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. An Edmond Vatan Sancerre that we tried at Michel Bras restaurant last year showed us just how good these wines can be.
However if you try many of the New World Sauvignon Blanc wines, especially these from New Zealand and Australia you are faced with a ‘fruit bomb’ with confused fruit flavours of lychees, pineapple and passionfruit which are as far from their French cousins as cheese slices are from aged Parmesan. Terroir does make a difference.
An example AOC appellation: Beaumes de Venise
Beaumes de Venise is a red wine appellation in the southern Rhone on the boundary of the Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Ventoux appellations. It is centered on the delightful village of Beaumes de Venise which sits below the Dentelles de Montmirail mountains – in fact the vineyards climb towards the village of Suzette which sits high in these jagged hills. There are a number of twisting roads from the village that snake their way through the higher vineyards providing stunning views over the extent of the appellation.
The terraced vineyards in the Dentelles
The village of Beaumes de Venise is known to many because it is the centre of another appellation known as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise where sweet wines of considerable elegance are produced.
Harvest grapes in the village
However the fact that interesting and elegant Rhone reds are produced here as well is not as well known.
Beaumes de Venise used to be one of the Cotes du Rhone named villages. However in 2006 It was elevated to the same status as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras whereby it can drop the Cotes du Rhone Villages and simply put the name of the village on the label.
The signs are behind the times - they still refer to the time when BdV was a Cotes du Rhone Villages
So, what grape varieties can be grown, where can they be grown and how are they managed? The Beaumes de Venise appellation rules exercises control over the vineyard plantings whereas other appellations control the percentage of grapes used in making the wines.
The main grape varieties are Grenache which must comprise 50% of the planted area followed by Syrah which must comprise 25%. Any of the other Cotes du Rhone permitted varieties (such as Mourvedre, Counoise and Cinsault, for example) can be planted but must not exceed 20%. The discrepancy is made up by white grape varieties which can be used up to a maximum of 5% just like in the northern Rhone where Viognier is often used to soften the Syrah-based red wines.
It is also notable that this appellation specifically prohibits the use of chemical sprays and treatments for weed control in the vineyards. Even irrigating the vines is prohibited and only natural yeasts can be used for fermentation - commercial yeasts are not permitted.
Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS)
The VDQS appellation rules are also administered by the INAO and are generally less restrictive than those of similar AOC appellations. So we might find that a wider range of grape types are permitted, higher yields might be allowed and less restrictive harvesting or maturation restrictions might apply.
This does not, however, mean that the wines are necessarily of a lesser quality. Sometimes an area has not progressed to AOC because key people in the appellation cannot agree on more restrictive rules that are required or it might just be that they are happy with the status quo.
There are only a small number of VDQS appellations and they represent less than 1% of total wine production in France. In fact, this category will disappear altogether as a law passed through the French parliament at the end of 2007 which streamlined the appellation categories. As such VDQS will cease to exist in 2011 with the existing appellations either gaining full AOC status or being relegated to Vin de Pays.
Examples of current VDQS appellations include Coteaux du Quercy, Coteaux d'Ancenis, Cotes de Milau and Cotes du Brulhois however even some of these are in the process of being elevated to AOC.
A good example of a VDQS appellation was Fiefs Vendéens which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean south of the city of Nantes. Here, wines such as those from Domaine Saint Nicolas, the estate run by passionate biodynamics advocate Thierry Michon, are better than those from many well-established AOCs. As a result, this appellation has recently been elevated to full AOC status along with Haut-Poitou, Cotes d'Auvergne and Moselle.
Vineyards near Brem in Fiefs Vendeens
Examples of appellations that started out with a VDQS status and were later elevated to AOC are Cheverny in the Loire, Coteaux du Giennois also in the Loire, Vin de Marcillac in South West France which became an AOC in 1990 under the name Marcillac and the appellation of Orléans in the Loire which was one of the most recent elevations to AOC in 2006.
Vin de Pays
The term Vin de Pays is loosely translated into English as 'wine of the country'. In France this more closely means wine of the region. The underlying purpose of the classification is to define a hierarchy to tie down the production of wines to a particular region of France either at the regional level, the Department level or a much more specific geographical level.
The Vin de Pays designation does not mean that the wine is of a lesser quality than wines with an AOC designation. It may mean that the winemaker has chosen not to abide by the rules of the appellation.
Thus, a winemaker in the Rhone may have decided to add some Cabernet Sauvignon to their wine thus ruling it ineligible to use the Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation. Neither of these permit any use of Cabernet Sauvignon.
One rule that is strictly enforced is that the grapes must come from the region on the label. Thus if the grapes were sourced from various areas in the Loire Valley then the wine may only qualify for the Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France classification.
If the grapes were sourced from a particular départment within the Loire then it can carry a name such as Vin de Pays de Vendée or Vin de Pays du Cher. If it can be localised even further then it may qualify for a classification such as Vin de Pays des Deux-Sèvres.
Other rules that apply are that the wine must be submitted for analysis, it can only be produced from recommended grape varieties for the region and must pass a tasting test from submitted samples each vintage. There are also rules relating to sulphur content and alcohol content. The maximum yield for Vin de Pays is 90 hectolitres per hectare although individual Vin de Pays may have more restrictive requirements.
The four regional Vin de Pays are:
Vin de Pays du Val de Loire (formerly Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France) - covers the Loire Valley
Vin de Pays des Comtes Rhodanians - covers the Rhone, Beaujolais, the Savoie and Jura
Vin de Pays du Comte Tolosan - covers the South West of France centered on Toulouse
Vin de Pays d'Oc - covers the Languedoc region.
Each of these regional Vin de Pays have sub-appellations within them. For example the Vin de Pays du Comte Tolosan has the following Vin de Pays:
Vin de Pays de Bigorre, Vin de Pays de Montestruc, Vin de Pays de l'Agenais, Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, Vin de Pays de Coteaux du Quercy, Vin de Pays de Saint-Sardos, Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Glanes, Vin de Pays des Terroirs Landais, Vin de Pays de Cotes du Tarn, Vin de Pays de Thezac-Perricard, Vin de Pays des Coteaux et Terrasses de Montauban and Vin de Pays du Condomois.
Sitting underneath these regional Vin de Pays are the Department Vin de Pays which cover a given départment (which is a political and geographic region similar to a state).
Examples are the Vin de Pays de l'Herault which covers the départment of Herault and Vin de Pays de l'Ardeche which cover the départment of Ardeche.
The next level is the Zonal vin de pays which are closest in size and style to an appellation as they cover only a small geographic area and hence may claim to have a unique 'terroir'. Examples are Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne and Vin de Pays des Côtes de Thongue.
Some interesting wines that fall within Vin de Pays appellations include Mas de Daumas Gassac Rouge from the Vin de Pays de l'Herault, Matassa Blanc from Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet Vin de Pays de l'Ardeche La Souteronne, Domaine du Mazel Cuvee Lamarde Syrah also from the Ardeche Vin de Pays, Domaine Barou from the Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes, Domaine du Tabatau Languedoc from Vin de Pays des Monts de la Grage Geneviève and Clos du Rouge Gorge also from the Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes.
One final example is the Magnon Vin de Pays de la Vallee du Paradis La Demarrante 2008 by young winemaker Maxime Magnon who breaks the rules of the Corbieres appellation which requires that Cinsault not comprise more than 20% of the blend in red wines. Maxime used 50% of this grape in 2008 thus making it ineligible for sale under the Corbieres AOC label.
Vin de Table
The Vin de Table designation is the broadest level with the fewest restrictions regarding regionalism and grape variety. Until now the rules have disallowed the display of grape varieties or even vintages on wines labelled as Vin de Table.
There are many bargains to be had in this category as there are many excellent winemakers who do not want to be constrained by the appellation system.
For example, Pascal Potaire from Mareuil in the Loire produces excellent natural wines such as his Domaine les Capriades rouge from just south of Angers which he labels as Vin de Table. We tried this pure Gamay at a great little restaurant in Angers called Chez Remi and were very impressed with its quality.
Another of our favourites from this area is the Domaine Mosse Bois-Rouge which comprises 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 75% Cabernet Franc from vines grown south a=of the city of Angers. Once again it is a Vin de Table but the quality is exceptional and the price is reasonable.
Another interesting wine from this area is produced by rising star Xavier Caillard who has a vineyard near Breze just south of Angers. His Genese Blanc is gaining a lot of attention for its complexity and length.
And another is the pure, vibrant, beautifully-balanced red from Benoît Courault called La Coulée made solely from the Grolleau Noir grape that is not allowed under the rules of the Anjou appellation. It is therefore sold as a Vin de Table wine.
In some years Laurence and Antoine Joly’s Domaine La Roche Buissière in the Rhone doesn’t achieve the typicity required for the Cotes du Rhone appellation and therefore the wines are marketed under the Vin de Table designation.
Another good example is the wine of superstar Axel Prufer from the Languedoc. He makes stellar Grenache-based reds that are marketed under the Vin de Table label.