Regions, sub-regions and appellations in France
The Caveman Speaks
by Bill Zacharkiw
If you have ever checked out a French wine label and have very little idea as to what everything means, I get it. It’s confusing stuff. Take the Burgundy region for example. Within the region of Burgundy, you will find 100 different appellations, which include regional appellations, village appellations, Premier and Grand Cru appellations, as well as lieux-dits and Monopoles.
To illustrate, Réné Bouvier’s Bourgogne, Le Chapitre, is a regional appellation (Bourgogne), while Jean-Claude Boisset’s Côte de Nuits Villages, Au Clou, is a village appellation (Côte de Nuits-Villages) with the distinction visible on the labels below.
Though on the surface this seems very complicated, and admittedly it is, the idea behind all these different classifications is to give the wine lover an idea as to what’s in the bottle. In theory, all wines which share a similar classification or name should also share a similar taste profile. The more precise the appellation, the more one should find things in common.
Region, sub-regions and appellations
So let’s start with the difference between region, sub-regions and appellations. A region, simply put, is a large territory which groups together a large number of vineyards. In France, the country is divided into 13 wine producing regions: Alsace, Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Burgundy, Champagne, Charentes, Corsica, Jura-Savoie, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, Rhône Valley, and the South West.
These regions, for the most part, share a relatively similar climate and grow a limited number of grape varieties. But aside from the smallest regions, like Champagne, Burgundy or Beaujolais, where every wine is similar in style – Champagne is always bubbly, Beaujolais is always a red wine made with gamay, and Burgundy is for the most part pinot noir or chardonnay – it’s hard to get more than a very general idea as to what a wine will taste like by looking only at the region.
It is when these regions start getting sub-divided that you begin to see more commonality in the wines. These sub-regions group together vineyards which share similar climates and soil types, as well as grow the same grape varieties.
For example, here is how Bordeaux is divided into sub-regions:
Sub-regions: Médoc, Graves, Libournais, Blayais, Entre-deux-Mers
This sub-dividing continues. Within each sub-region, even smaller vineyard areas are grouped together. Basically, the smaller the sub-region, the more all the vineyards in that area will share similar soils and climates, grow the same grapes, and in theory, produce a similar style and quality of wine.
Continuing with the Bordeaux example, the Médoc sub-region is divided into two smaller sub-regions: Bas Médoc (lower) and Haut-Médoc (upper). Within the Haut-Médoc, there exist six even smaller sub-regions, called communes, which were deemed to have even more similarities from one vineyard to the next: Margaux, Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Listrac-Médoc and Moulis.
So then what is an appellation? An appellation is a legally defined growing area with distinct rules designed to assure that every winery using the appellation name make a similar style of wine and quality. In France, if a region or sub-region produces what is considered to be distinctively good wine by the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), then the area is granted appellation status.
The appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system was designed to recognize and regulate each of these regions, sub-regions, and if you permit me, sub-sub-regions. So each of these growing areas which have been granted appellation status have rules to follow if the winery wants to use the appellation name on the bottle. You may see the letters AOP rather than AOC in recent vintages. Appellation d’origine protégée (AOP) is the new European classification system, replacing AOC, and essentially meaning the same thing.
Back to Bordeaux and the Médoc. Each of the sub-regions I listed above are considered an appellation. So if the vineyard is located in the area of the Haut-Médoc, but not in one of the even smaller sub-regions, the wine can be labelled Haut-Médoc AOC. If the vineyard is in, for example, Margaux, then the wine can be labelled Margaux AOC. This is providing the winery follows the rules governing the appellation with respect to grape varieties, yields, and minimum ripeness (alcohol) levels.
So if I am a winery owner in Margaux, the permitted grapes are cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec. If I want to grow syrah, I can, but I cannot use the appellation name Margaux on my label. What I can use however, is another classification called Vin de Pays. While in general this classification denotes lesser quality wine, that is not always the case. The Italian version of this, IGT or Indicazione Geografica Typica, is where one finds Supertuscans, which are Italy’s most expensive wines.
As AOP is becoming the defacto European classification, replacing AOC in France and DOC in Italy, a new streamlined classification called IGP will replace Vin de Pays and IGT.
Once you learn the ABC’s (or AOPs, DOCs, IGPs, etc.) of the wine world, your knowledge of what’s in the bottle will increase, and hopefully your buying and drinking pleasure as well.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
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