I’m going to start diving into a few more French wine regions, so I’d like to include a brief overview of France as a wine producing country. Included are a few key terms, a short history lesson, and some fun (and funny) wine facts.
I want to start this post with a few key terms I/you will need to know in order to move forward in French wine studies. The below list is a personalized one insomuch that these are words that I feel I need to commit to memory. So, if using this as a guide, be sure to add your own words that will help you. (Remember the rules of the Stacy study game.) Definitions are taken from both The World Atlas of Wine (8th Edition) and The Oxford Companion to Wine.
Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)—wines whose geographical origins, varietal make-up and production methods are precisely regulated. This includes varieties allowed in an AOC, planting density, training systems, max yields, minimum alcohol levels, length of maturation before release, earliest date wine can be sold, etc. It’s an inherently protectionist system, based on the idea of terroir, of designating and controlling the all-important geographically based names applied to wines as well as spirits and many foods. It is administered by the INAO. (Below)
Institut National de l’Origine et la Qualité (INAO)—founded in 1935, it oversees AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) system and, from 2009, also includes oversight of IGP wines. (Below)
Indication Geographique Protegee (IGP)—the EU denomination from areas larger than AOCs, in which non-traditional varieties and higher yields are allowed. To qualify as IGP, wines must not be blended from across zones, must be produced in limited quantities, must be made of certain specified grape varieties, and must reach a certain minimum alcohol as well as coming from a specified area—but again these rules are less strict than the AOC regulations. Producers must submit wines to a tasting panel in order to achieve IGP status. There are three levels of IGP wines, six are at regional level, such as Pays d’Oc from Languedoc and Roussillon.
Vin/Vin de France—basic EU denomination; producers may choose to make a wine without a geographical indication either because yields are too high or because the mix of varieties is not permitted by the regulations.
Chateaux—French for “castle,” but refers to vine-growing, winemaking estates, including the vineyards, cellar, and even the wine itself, as well as any buildings on the property, which can range from nothing, to a shack, farm, or a classical grand estate. The term is typically used in Bordeaux.
Coteaux de, Cotes de—indicates a hillside
Cru—literally “growth,” indicates a vineyard and is usually reserved for those officially recognized as superior quality. In Beaujolais, the top-ranked communes are called crus, their produce Cru Beaujolais
Cru classe— a “classed growth,” cru that has been distinguished by an important classification (for example, the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux)
Grand Cru—literally “great growth;” in Burgundy and Alsace it refers to the finest vineyards; in St-Emilion, the term does not mean anything special
Premier Cru—literally “first growth;” in Burgundy, this is a notch down from Grand Cru (above); in the Medoc, it refers to one of the top four chateaux
Villages—suffix denoting selected communes or parishes within an appellation
FRENCH HISTORY LESSON
France has a long history of wine that dates back to ancient Greek and Roman times. Honestly, I think it’s enough to say that lest we get trapped in the weeds. The major wine-expansion happened under Charlemagne and the period of the monasteries after 1,000 CE. And the Middle Ages saw the establishment of important export markets developed due to major rivers and the sea facilitating the movement of wine. (Apparently, wine by land was a cumbersome task back then and route by water much more reliable.)
A key development in France‘s wine history was the draining of the marshes in the Medoc by Dutch engineers in the 17th century. Once those marshes were, well, less marshy, they found the soil suitable for viticulture. Its reputation built then, prevails now, with the region’s notable fast-draining, gravelly soils. Thus, the trading ports closest to Bordeaux became even more important and popular.
In fact, the 17th and 19th centuries saw a huge expansion in the export market of French wine, especially coming out of Bordeaux, with its newly established successful vineyards and its immediate proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. With that export success came the ever important role of negociants and courtiers, and it was these businessmen who, under the direction of the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce, created the oh-so-popular Classification of 1855 (more to come on that).
France has not been without its challenges—powdery mildew, downy mildew, black rot, and, of course phylloxera, all began to plague areas under vine in the 19th century, and the industry only really recovered in the 20th.
FUN NUMBERS FACT: France reduced its land under vine through the impetus of the EU vine pull scheme. The total area under vine, including for table grapes and brandy, fell by 1/3 between 1970 and the early 2010s. As you may remember from your D1 and D2 studies, this was enforced as a way to a) get rid of any unhealthy vines but also b) reduce over production of wine grapes, which would create an imbalance between supply and demand.
GRAPE GROWING, WINEMAKING, AND RULES OF THE GAME
Since each region is so specific to all these categories, I just want to fill this section up with a few interesting factoids about French wine in general. Anything regionally specific, including classification systems, will be covered in the regional articles.
FUN Vineyard Management FACT: Most French vineyards are planted at high density with vines trained on trellises. They are usually trained with the cane-replacement method pruned on a single Guyot system with vertical shoot positioning (VSP).
INTERESTING Winemaking FACTOID: Enrichment in the form of chaptalization was invented in France and is still used throughout the country today in much cooler regions or in cooler vintages.
Captain Obvious is weighing in: Maturation in barrels is a long-time standard of French winemaking, and the country is home to a large, world-renowned, and highly respected cooperage industry.
When the Old World Copies off of the New World, it looks like this: Commercial success of varietally labelled wines from New World countries have influenced French labeling and package design (as well as the rest of the EU), which now allow the name of the grape variety to appear on the label along the name of the appellation. (For example, Bourgogne AOC Chardonnay)
D2 FACT: Co-operatives are important for smaller growers with over 40% of wine production being processed by them.
Fancy France: France exports less wine than either Spain or Italy by volume BUT is the world leader of exports in terms of value.
LOL: France is also a large importer of wine, mainly at the inexpensive level.
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