France produces more fine wine than any other country. France also produces a great deal of mediocre wine, but that does nothing to diminish the country’s place as a fine wine role model. See the History of Wine section for some reasons why. The culmination of two thousand years of French wine history is the country’s system of geographical wine appellations, the highest level of which is the standard-setting Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system.
In the United States and most of the rest of the New World (Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) wines are primarily named after the type of grapes from which they are made. Place names are used (Napa Valley, Mendoza, Barossa Valley, Marlborough), but the only requirement for those wanting to use place names on their labels is that the wine comes from that place. The winemaker using a place name on the label can use any grape or combination of grapes, any vine growing practice, any winemaking technique, whatever yeast he or she wishes, and so forth. Further, in the U.S., only 85% of the wine has to be from that place (the rest can be from anywhere).
Not so in France. The INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité), founded in 1935, sets French standards. To qualify for AOC status, the INAO specifies:
- the wine’s geographical area
- allowed grape variety or combination of varieties
- pruning and vineyard management rules
- whether irrigation is permitted
- harvesting rules and maximum vineyard yields
- type of yeast allowed in the winery
- minimum and maximum alcohol levels
- and anything else they can think of
But the wine is not home free even here. It must be reviewed and approved by a professional tasting panel.
Let us look for starters as to how these rules affect the grapes that are used to make French AOC wines. Here are some examples:
- Hermitage, the great wine from the Rhône: at least 85% Syrah with up to 15% of white Marsanne or Roussanne grapes (most hermitage is in fact 100% Syrah).
- Cahors, from Southwest France: minimum of 70% Malbec with up to 30% Merlot or Tannat.
- Anjou: At least 80% Chenin Blanc, the remainder a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Red varieties allowed are Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul Noir, Syrah, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, and Roussanne. These grapes are not restricted as to proportion. Despite these rules, most Châteauneuf-du-Papes lead with Grenache and round it out with Syrah and Mourvèdre, the classic GSM blend.
- Chablis: 100% Chardonnay
Every French AOC wine has similar structure, except in Alsace (which is known for its single varietal Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris), French law traditionally forbad the grapes or grapes to appear on the label. New EU regulations now allow this, as means of better reaching New World markets.
A French winemaker who labeled his or her wine with its grape variety or varieties would not be popular with most other winemakers, because he or she would be diluting the all-important French concept of terroir, the unique quality of a physical place that expresses itself in the wine.
In the circled area of the Loire Valley in the map above, all the appellations (except the Cabernet Franc regions of Bourgeuil and Chinon in the center) produce wine primarily from the Chenin Blanc grape. Despite this fact, winemakers, marketers and devotees would never call the wine of Vouvray “Chenin Blanc” any more than they would call the wine of Coteaux du Layon “Chenin Blanc.” To do so would contravene the concept of terroir. The grape type is, in the French view, incidental.
Similarly, in the Côte de Nuits section of northern Burgundy (circled in red), these exquisite vineyards produce nothing but Pinot Noir, and yet they all have distinct terroirs: Gevrey-Chambertin (or its nine grand cru vineyards-Le Chambertin, Chambertin-Clos de Beze, Mazis-Chambertin, Chapelle-Chambertin, Charmes-Chambertin, Mazoyeres-Chambertin, Griotte-Chambertin, Latricieres-Chambertin and Ruchottes-Chambertin), Morey-St-Denis (with five grand cru vineyards-Clos de la Roche, Clos St. Denis, Clos des Lambrays, Clos de Tart and Bonnes Mares which it shares with the village of Chambolle-Musigny), Chambolle-Musigny (grand cru vineyards of Bonnes Mares and Musigny), Vougeot (Clos de Vougeot), Vosne-Romanee (six grand cru vineyards-Romanée-Conti, La Tâche, Richebourg, La Romanée, Romanée-St. Vivant and La Grand Rue), and so forth. To call any of these wines
“Pinot Noir” would be at best meaningless, at worst sacrilege.
Further south, in the Mâconnais (circled in black) Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouilly-Loché Pouilly-Vinzelles, and Saint-Véran are all 100% Chardonnay, but to call the wine “Chardonnay” would dilute the concept of individual terroirs.
AOC wines are the country’s top wines, and the ones we are likely to see on wine shop shelves. The next level down relates to the regional wines. The old designation Vin de Pays (wine of the country) is gradually being replaced by the new European Union Term Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) (Protected geographical origin PGI). The lowest level is Vin (simply, wine) or Vin de France, replacing the old Vin de Table.