The Ultimate Guide to Fine French Wine
Originally posted on & updated on 2nd February, 2024
Mention France and people automatically think of wine. This is a country with the highest per capita wine consumption rates of any other and landscapes characterised by vineyards producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc to name but a few. But how are the 70 million hectolitres (amounting to about 9 billion bottles) of French wine produced every year classified?
Guide to French Wines & Terroir
Each wine region in France is different not only in its “terroir” (its unique combination of climate and soil) but also in the history and style of the wines it produces. Bordeaux is one of the most famous wine producing regions, particularly for reds such as Saint Emilion and Médoc in Gironde, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region.
The Occitanie region is well known for its Coteaux du Languedoc, Côtes du Rousillon and Minervois wines and the Loire region produces some of the best known white wines such as Muscadet, Saumur and Sancerre. These unique properties are defined on French wine labels which classify and rank the wine of different regions:
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC)
An AOC classification acts as a consumer guarantee that a wine is of a particular quality and, generally, of a particular style. It also states that the wine has been made in a designated area, in accordance with local wine production laws and regulations. On the bottle label, the place-name of the wine is mentioned between the two words e.g. Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée.
Fine Grands Crus & Premiers Crus
These wines fall under AOC-level appellations and imply a further step up in terms of quality. Grand Cru is the highest-possible classification for a French wine. It is used in two distinct ways, relating either to the winery itself (as in the 1855 Classification of Médoc and Graves) or the land from which the wine comes (as in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or district). Premier Cru is also used in two ways: to denote the highest tier within an existing Grand Cru classification (such as the Premier Grand Cru Classes of Medoc and Saint-Emilion) and to denote land of superior quality, but which falls short of Grand Cru status.
Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure
VDQS is a small category of wine, translated as “demarcated wine of superior quality”. A stepping stone for appellations seeking promotion to AOC/AOP status, VDQS titles represent less than 1% of France’s total wine production and because they change so often, it is rare to see VDQS on a wine label. The category has been removed from France’s wine quality hierarchy, as of the 2011 vintage.
Vin de Pays (VDP)
VDP, meaning “country wine”, was introduced as a category in the 1970s and represents wines intended for the domestic market. The production zone of a Vin de pays region is much larger than that of an AOC and makes up 25% of French wine production. Winemakers must use specific grape varieties suggested by a “Conseil Interprofessionnel” (joint committee of professionals) but regulations are less restrictive than for AOC wines (VDP wines can list on the label the grape varieties used while AOC wines cannot). A VDP bottle label will always be followed a place-name e.g. Vin de Pays Languedoc Roussillon.
Vin de table, or VDT - VDT is the lowest category for French wine. Meaning “table wine”, it carries no geographic indication other than “France”. The least regulated of all the quality levels, VDT wines labels have no official statement about vintage or grape varieties. Since the development of the VDP wine, very little wine is now sold under the VDT title.
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