Welcome to Wine Law 101! These recurring blog posts will attempt to present various laws or legislature related to wine throughout the world.
For today’s Wine Law 101, I’m going to introduce the French wine labeling system, in an attempt to help you to understand what exactly it is that you are purchasing when you pick out a bottle at the wine shop.
Interpreting French wine labels can be an overwhelming process. However, once you understand the basics, picking out the French wine you desire from the store shelves should be a piece of cake.
The French have very strict laws regarding the labeling of wine, which are under the control of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), which is part of the French Ministry of Agriculture. The INAO assigns Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) classifications to a designated area in France, and also is indicative to a particular style and quality of wine. The different appellations of the AOC are named by the area in which specific wines are made (like the different AVA’s here in Virginia; e.g. “Monticello” AVA). These areas are not all equal in size, and range anywhere from covering 300 villages to covering only 4 acres.
An additional qualification for indicating quality levels in French wine are given “cru” designations. For example, under the AOC qualification, a wine may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru. Grand Cru is the absolute highest level of quality for AOC wines. Grand Cru classifications can be assigned two different ways: one being for the winery itself, or the other for the land which the wine originates from (the latter being the more accepted method). Like Grand Cru, the classification Premier Cru is also used two different ways: first, to denote the highest tier of quality within the Grand Cru classification; and second, to denote land of superior quality but which falls just short of the Grand Cru status.
Other terms that are important to know and understand are:
· Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP): This is the European-wide equivalent of the French AOC. Denotes the highest quality level of wines.
· Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure (VDQS): A level for those regions looking to be promoted to the AOC/AOP quality status.
· Vin de Pays (VDP): This is one step below the VDQS level, and what may be described as the wine intended for purchase in the domestic market.
· Indication Geographique Protegée (IGP): This is the European-wide equivalent of the French VDP.
· Vin de Table (VDT): This is the lowest quality level and least regulated of all French wines.
Taking this very basic knowledge, we can apply it to actual wine labels, in order to determine what exactly we are purchasing. We’ll look at a couple of different wine regions (AOC designations) in France, and how each one is required to label their wines.
What you’ll find on a Bordeaux wine label are the following bits of information (see the picture for reference):
· The estate’s classification (which may or may not show the level)
· Appellation (which will clue you in on the type of grapes used)
· Bottling information
· Alcohol content
Burgundy wines fall under the following quality categories: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Communal or Village appellation designation, and Regional appellation designation. Grand Cru is the highest quality, followed by Premier Cru. Communal or Village appellation designations are slightly less in quality than Premier Cru. Finally, Regional appellation designation indicates the grapes are from a much broader area. Beaujolais, which is considered a part of Burgundy, has its’ own classification system of the appellations Beaujolais, or Beaujolais-Villages. Beaujolais covers the entire Burgundy region, while Beaujolais-Villages covers a more specific subset of the Burgundy region.
On a Burgundy label you will find:
· Quality Designation
· Alcohol Content
· Bottling Information
In the Alsace region of France, grapes with a German influence are typically grown. The quality designation and labeling system are also a little different from what we’ve learned so far. On an Alsatian bottle of wine, you’ll find the following information: Alsace AOC (an umbrella term for Alsatian wines); Alsace Grand Cru (highest quality of wines from this region); Vendange Tardive and Sélection de Grain Nobles (late harvest wines: e.g. sweet!); Edelzwicker (a term for an inexpensive blend of grapes); and finally, Crémant d’Alsace AOP (sparkling wines made in the Alsace region using the traditional method).
A breakdown of a typical wine from Alsace looks like the following:
· Vineyard (or parcel within a Grand Cru vineyard)
· Grape variety and vintage
· Name and address of the producer
· Sulfite notice
· Alcohol content
This short post provides just a small view of how French wines are labeled, but with this information, it should be a little bit easier for you to purchase your French wines with some confidence (or at least get you started). Other information you’d need to learn in order to have a strong grasp are what types of grapes are grown in which region, and the quality of particular vintages. There are many books and website on this sort of topic, though one which I recommend would be Windows on the World: Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly. Find it on Amazon here.
The many laws involved with French wine labeling are understandably confusing, and I don’t expect you all to become pros at interpreting them after reading this post, but hopefully you’ll come away knowing something useful that you did not know before (just think, Grand Cru = high quality!!).