Like food, wine is a part of the daily ritual, entwined with customs, festivities and local identity. However, falling exports and shifting drinking habits in France and elsewhere are pressuring the wine industry to adapt. However, after decades of mechanisation, intensification and chemicals, French vineyards are retreating back to the basics of painstaking labour, of hand-picking and sorting, re-establishing the role of the vine in producing high quality wine.
In touch with the wider reawakening of rural identity and the faith in terroir, the distinct local qualities of French wine are becoming more important than ever.
Vin de table: Apart from the prohibition of naming grape origin on the label, there are few laws governing vin de table. Accounting for about a quarter of French wine, most vin de table is of average quality, although a handful of gems – unable to negotiate the strict AOC regulations – can be found.
Vin de pays: Encompasses about 150 wines of particular regional significance. Originally a humble classification, today many vin de pays carry a higher price tag than their AOC cousins. The label says where the wine is from, production methods and main grape variety used.
Vin délimité de qualité supérieur (VDQS): A small clutch of wines that fall between vin de pays and AOC conforming to rules of production, grape variety and yield. The VDQS classification was due to be phased out a few years ago, but new members are still being created.
Vin d'appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC): AOC classified wine should only come from the region, town or vineyard on the label. Unfortunately, duplicitous winemakers, often blending in non-AOC varieties, and the complexities of the AOC system itself have devalued its worth.
While New World wines are free to experiment with new blends and to plant on virgin soil, centuries of development and classification in France have created very strict rules about wine origin and content. Thus, champagne may only contain Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, while you won't find a Cabernet Sauvignon grape in the vineyards of Burgundy.
French wines, in contrast to New World varieties, tend to be named by location rather than grape variety. Indeed, today many people only know the famous French grape varieties through their usage on New World wine labels.
|Cabernet Sauvignon||Bordeaux (Medoc)||Blackcurrant, green pepper, dark chocolate|
|Pinot Noir||Red Burgundy, Champagne, Loire, Alsace||Black cherry, strawberry|
|Merlot||Bordeaux (St Emilion and Pomerol)||Plum, blackberry, mint|
|Syrah||Rhône Valley, Languedoc-Roussillon||Blackberry, pepper, smoky|
|Chardonnay||White Burgundy (Chablis, Mâcon), Champagne||Fruit, nutty|
|Sauvignon Blanc||Loire Valley, white Bordeaux, Bergerac||Fresh, gooseberry|
|Riesling||Alsace||Apple, spice, floral|
|Chenin Blanc||Loire Valley||Apple, honey, cinnamon|
|Sémillon White||Bordeaux||Lemon (when dry), honey, peach|
French wine labels vary widely between the regions. Some declarations of grandeur, like the phrasegrand vins on Bordeaux wines, are unregulated and effectively meaningless. Others, like the grand cruon certain Alsatian wines, give a guide to quality. The name of the wine – a vineyard, estate or a brand – will appear, as well as the vintage. The constituent grape varieties may also be noted.
There are, however, certain things that must be listed on all labels:
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