Remember the teacher from Peanuts? That’s kind of how wine information can sound. Too much like school! Make it stop!
We admit, some parts of European wine classification are pretty dry. However, learning the basics can really help you find your way if you’re staring at shelves of French wine. So… what means what? Why does it say so damn much on the label?
You can think of every country’s classification system as a pyramid. The higher up, the more specific the set of criteria that wine has met. Oh so conveniently, every country uses its own language for each level. France is even more awesome, because even the different regions even have slightly different terminology. Sacre bleu, c’est fou!
The “Vin de Table” Classification refers to simple table wine. Accordingly, it’s the most broad appellation. The only requirements are 1) the wine is from France and 2) it’s labelled with the name of its producer. You could consider these wines total schwill, but you’d be remiss. Remember how delicious unnamed wines in carafes can be? Simple, young, quaffable juice.
Vin de Pays is the next step up in the French pyramid. It roughly means “country wine” and is probably the classification you’ll see most often. Wines from all different regions can be a Vin de Pays: Vin de Pays d’Oc from Languedoc-Roussillon or Vin de Pays de Vaucluse…
But, each region has its own grape, yield and alcohol percentage requirements. You can’t call a wine Vin de Pays de Gasgogne and decide to throw some random grapes that aren’t from Gasgogne into it. France is a stickler about this, and they have their reasons.
The Nitty Gritty
Vin d’Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) sits at the top of the pyramid. Now the rules get even tighter. A wine must meet their specific region’s requirements for all of the following: grape variety, vine age, vine planting density, wine blending ratios, finished alcohol percentage and even certain harvesting & winemaking processes.
There are a lot of hoops to jump through, but the system is designed to protect the integrity of the finest wines from each region. Plus, it helps YOU- yes, YOU!
When you go to a store and see a wine from the Cotes du Rhône AOC, you know with the utmost certainty that you’ll be getting a wine made from certain grapes all of a certain quality. It takes the guesswork out of the wine buying game.
Oh, come onn!
One last thing: each different winemaking region has their own additional classification levels above the AOC level! Just when you thought it made sense!
After your run of the mill AOC comes the Village AOC’s. These wines contain grapes that are all from one village. Next- take a wild guess?
All the grapes from a specific vineyard! Oui! These are known as Premier Cru. Wait, wait- there’s one more!
The most elite vineyard sites are known as Grand Cru. These are vineyards of top historical importance. They’re kind of a big deal.
Next, take a jaunt over to the Bordeaux region and shit gets even crazier. Labels on labels, friends. But that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame. We’ll get there another time.