The Secrets of French Wine

Sunrise over vineyards in Bordeaux France

Old World Wines

Terroir is a word that is unique to France.  It represents a location where wine is produced and it gives the wine a unique identity.  The terroir is a combination of climate, geography and soil.

Terroir is also the basis for the French AOC wine classifications.  AOC stands for appellation d’origine contrôlée.  The first French formal mandate ” Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin” was established by the French government for wine in 1915.  It was this law that has prevented the usage of the Champagne name on sparkling wine around the world.

The main French wine regions are  Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Champagne, Côtes du Rhone, Jura, Languedoc , Loire Valley, Médoc and Provence.

Appellation d’origine controlee (AOC)

Appellation is a legally defined and protected region where French wines are grown. Within France there are a total of over 300 AOC classifications, making sure that each wine is uniquely identified.  To qualify as an AOC wine, the wineries have additional restrictions with which they must comply.  These restrictions include the type of grape varieties allowed in an AOC, maximum yields per acreage and the prohibition of irrigation.  And there are additional restrictions for labeling the wine as AOC.  Very seldom are the types of grapes mentioned in the labeling of AOC wines.

In order to qualify as an AOC wine, the wineries must follow stringent rules regarding the quality and combination of the grapes used.

  1. Only permitted grapes varieties are allowed for AOC
  2. The ratio of grape blends are defined
  3. Maximum yield per acreage defined
  4. Age of vine and planting density specified
  5. Alcohol content specified

Within the AOC structure there are additional ranking factors with the Grand Cru being the highest.

Beaujolais and Chablis Wines

The French wine town of Chablis in Burgundy
The French wine town of Chablis in Burgundy

Burgundy wine region, also known as Bourgogne in French, produces a large amount of wines with their two most popular regions being the red Beaujolais wine and the white Chablis wines.  These two types of wines are AOC defined.  The majority of vineyards in Burgundy are planted with the Chardonnay grape for the Chablis wine production and Pinot Noir grapes for the Beaujolais wine.

In this region, wine gained a foothold when the Romans introduced the vines to the Gaul region during 52BC.  It wasn’t until the Cistercian and Cluniac monks established their wineries in the Middle Ages, that the influence of the vineyards increased as wine became a sacred drink of the church.

The wines of Burgundy have an additional classification for their AOC wines: Premier cru is rated just below the Grand cru.

Bordeaux Wines

Saint-Emilion in Aquitaine a famous Bordeaux wine town.
Saint-Emilion in Aquitaine a famous Bordeaux wine town.

Bordeaux wines are the main wine produced in Aquitaine.  Romans established wine vineyards in this area also.  But the growth of the wineries was based on the historical and political alliance with England and the majority of the wines were cultivated for export to the UK.  The main wines produced in Bordeaux are Sauternes, which is a sweet white wine, and Red Bordeaux, which is made from Merlot grapes.  The higher quality of Bordeaux wines are aged in oak barrels.

Grand Cru classifications are used with Bordeaux wine with an additional classification as to 1st-5th Crus for the red wines. 1st growth is the highest classification and sometimes these bottles of wine can reach the price of $1,000 a bottle.  In the red wine classification, the Premier Crus wineries are the famous Château Lafite Rothschild , Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton-Rothschild.  In Bordeaux there are over 60 different appellations with  7,375 wineries.  And only 62 of the wineries qualify as a Grand Cru classification / as they are listed below.

 5 Bordeaux Wineries w/Premiers Crus (First Growth)

15 Bordeaux Wineries w/Deuxièmes Crus (Second Growth)

14 Bordeaux Wineries w/Troisièmes Crus (Third Growth)

10 Bordeaux Wineries w/Quatrièmes Crus (Fourth Growth)

18 Bordeaux Wineries w/Cinquièmes Crus (Fifth Growth)

Vin de Pays

Saint Elme Fortress outside Collioure Languedoc
Saint Elme Fortress outside Collioure Languedoc surrounded by vineyards

Other types of French wines are called “Vin de Pays” or a Country wine .  These wines are still restricted with regard to the types of grapes that are allowed. But there is more flexibility in the labeling and  grape combination.  There is less control over the factors affecting the wine.  However, some of the vineyards take advantage of the less stringent requirements to experiment with the wines.  And if you enjoy searching through labels and wine tasting, you might find a wine that is unique.

There are four Vin de Pays Regions: Vine de Pays du Val de Loire, Vin de Pays d’Oc, Vin de Pays des Comtes Rhodanians, Vin de Pays du Comte Tolosan.  The region that produces the highest quantity of Vin de Pays is the Languedoc region (Vin de Pays d’Oc)

Many people may jump to the conclusion that “Vin de Pays” is a lower quality of wine since it does not fall within the AOC parameters.  But that is not always the case.  Sometimes the vintner (Wine Maker) will produce a very high quality wine.

New World Wines

Varietal Wines

Varietal Grapes on vine
Varietal Grapes on vine

A varietal wine means that the wine label will specify type of grape and sometimes names the wine after the grape.  This was mainly undertaken in new world countries such as the USA, New Zealand, Australia who were not as rigid in their labeling of wine as France.  Examples are: Merlot wines are made exclusively from the Merlot grapes and Chardonnay wine is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape.  Wines produced under the rules of AOC never mention the type of grape. However, some of the Vin de Pays are labeling their wine with the grapes used in the wine.

France Joins the European Union

All of this confusing wine lingo changed when France joined the European Union.  However, the basis of the French structure is applicable to European System for labeling wine.

  • Appellation d’Origine Protégée (VOP replacing AOC)
  • Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure
  • Indication Geographique Protegée (IGP – replacing Vin de Pays)
  • Vin de Table (VdT)

Our Regions of France where you find vacation rentals

Alsace, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Brittany, Burgundy, Centre, Franche Comte, Ile de France, Languedoc, Limousin, Lorraine, Lower Normandy, Midi Pyrenees, Pays de la Loire, Picardie, Poitou Charentes, Provence, Rhone Alps, Upper Normandy,

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