There are four main categories in the classification of French wine, although these are subdivided in a variety of ways. These are, Vin de Table, Vin de Pays, VDQS, and AOC.
Vin de table
This simply means 'table wine'. Any wine made anywhere in France has the right to call itself vin de table.
There are no specific restrictions of quality, style or grape variety, or on yields and vinification techniques.
There are restrictions on labeling. A vin de table is not allowed to be labeled with the year of its production, the grape varieties used, or the region in which it is made.
Vin de pays
This means 'country wine'. It is the largest subdivision of French wine that gives any indication of where it comes from.
Vins de pays are subject to restrictions of grape variety, alcohol, acidity, and sulphur levels, and yield. But the requirements are not hard to satisfy. Maximum permitted yields, for example, are 90 hl/h.
Vins de pays are tasted for quality before being approved, and can display their vintage on the label.
There are three types.
Regional vin de pays
This is wine from one of four large regions.
- Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France (the Loire valley)
- Vin de Pays des Comtés Rhodaniens (the Rhone, Beaujolais, Jura, Savoie)
- Vin de pays du Comté Tolosan (the South West, excluding Bordeaux)
- Vin de Pays d'Oc (the Languedoc)
Departmental vin de pays
A French département is an administrative district roughly equivalent to an English county. Départements in the parts of France that make wine often have their own vin de pays appellations.
Zonal vin de pays
A few smaller areas also have the right to label their wines vin de pays. The boundaries of a zonal vin de pays may reflect a consistent terroir (rather than an administrative convenience) and such an area could potentially achieve AOC status.
This stands for Vin Delimité de Qualité Supérieure, 'wine determined as of a superior quality'. Superior, that is, to vin de table and vin de pays.
There are very few VDQS wines. It is seen as a stepping stone for a zonal vin de pays which is seeking to become a full AOC.
In theory, any group of winemakers who believed they had a consistent and distinctive terroir, not already recognised as an AOC, could set out to correct this error in the system.
First they would apply to become a zonal vin de pays, then a VDQS, then a full AOC.
Grape varieties, yield restrictions, and the borders of the new appellation would all need to be renegotiated with INAO at each stage. Tastings would be required to prove the quality and personality of the wine.
Vin d'Appellation d'Origine Controlée
At the top of the appellation system are full AOC wines. The label is intended as a guarantee of origin and of quality.
The wines of each AOC are supposed to have a distinct and consistent character and only an area which can produce distinctive wines should qualify for AOC status.
AOC wines are subject to stricter controls than vins de pays or VDQS, although how strict varies dramatically.
These may include :
- Permitted grape varieties, and the ratios in which they can be blended
- Maximum yields
- Vine age and planting density
- Harvesting and vinification techniques
- Level of alcohol in the finished wine
Grand crus (and first growths)
Some areas, most significantly Burgundy and Bordeaux, make further distinctions in the quality of their AOC wines.
An AOC Bourgogne can be made anywhere in the Burgundy appellation. Smaller areas within Burgundy, such as Pommard or Nuits-St-Georges, have their own appellations.
The very best parcels of land are designated premier or grand cru, and only wine made on these can be labeled as such.
Bordeaux has a similar system with the difference that there are five levels of cru, also referred to as 'growths', and that these are attached to particular chateaux rather than specific parcels of land.