Become a French wine expert in 180 seconds or less… vous êtes les bienvenus
If I asked the average person whether a Grand Cru Classe Chateau Pavie Saint-Émilion 2005 1.5Ltr AOC was a good wine, it’s doubtful many would know what type of wine it was, let alone the quality level. But this French Bordeaux easily sells for over a $1,000 a bottle. Like many other wine drinkers, I’m not fluent in French and typically the only way I could tell whether a French wine was premium was to type the vintage into my iPhone and wait for the query of reviews to populate. French wine is highly regulated by the government; even the text size on the wine bottle label has specific criteria and meaning. So, to assist you in your French wine selection, here are some tips to deciphering wine labels and bypassing the need to Google in the grocery store.
There are basically four categories of French wine quality. The lowest on the vin grape vine is Vin de table; or literally “table wine”. This wine accounts for a large portion of French wine production and can be easily found in great variety in most stores that sell alcohol. You can purchase a bottle of French table wine ranging from around $6 to $30. If the label does not explicitly state Vin de table or some similar verbiage, you can identify a bottle by what is not on the label. Governmental regulations forbid the labeling of vintage, grape variety, or region. However, the origin of “France” can be listed. Also, it’s forbidden to enhance table wine by adding sugar during the fermentation process. In summation, if you see a French bottle of wine with almost no information on the label, it’s likely of lower quality.
The second tier of French wine quality is Vin de pays which is translated as “wine country”. This wine has more production and location guidelines than table wine, but is still not as regulated as the top-tier French wines. Usually, you can recognize a Vin de pays wine because the label will actually use those words followed by the region of origin. Also, the primary varietal used to create the wine can be listed, but this doesn’t mean the wine is 100% comprised of that specific grape. Laws affecting Vin de pays include quantity of grape grown in a particular area, type of grape that can be grown, and growing region. Vin de pays wine may also state the vintage in addition to the region and primary varietal. Still, this label will not overflow with information about the wine itself.
The next tier in the French wine classification system is Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure; when translated roughly means “delimited wines of superior quality”. Unlike Vin de table or Vin de pays, this quality tier accounts for an almost non-existent percentage of French wine. The VDQS classification was designed to be a transition from the lower two tiers to the highest quality French wine. But many of the wine producers in this tier increased the quality of their wine thus qualifying for higher recognition.
The highest tier in French wine quality is the divine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which is translated to approximately “controlled designation of origin”. A winemaker who has achieved this level of quality will commonly state this on the label by either using the elongated French term, or using the acronyms AOC or AC. Nearly all AOC or AC wines will have the region listed on the label. Some will use a general AOC region such as Bordeaux but could also list a smaller area within the larger region. Additionally, a winemaker could list Grand Cru or Premier Cru on the label which indicates the wine was produced in an exceptional terroir. The laws affecting this quality tier encompass almost every detail of wine production from pruning and property lines to aging and labeling.
Next time you visit your local wine-selling location, don’t just choose the prettiest label or shop by price. There is no need to pull up Google Translate for a crash-course in French wine terms; use the above information to sharpen your French wine picking skills but don’t be surprised when your friends and even strangers in the store start asking for your confident expertise.
Written By Sarah Meadows