France, Relaxed – Special Feature

Encapsulating French Wine Identity in the “Vin De France” Designation

By Sara d’Amato with notes from David Lawrason

This feature was commissioned by Anivin de France

Can France’s global terroir be encapsulated and distilled in one overarching appellation? An ambitious prospect to be sure but it is the aim of the Vin De France designation that encompasses some of the country’s top value-oriented wines. It is not unheard of for a wine region or even a flagship wine from an entire country to become a brand, think: Champagne, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or Argentinian Malbec. In each of these cases, an industry has benefitted from an indelible, distinguishing public perception. In this context, the Vin De France designation’s design is impressively enterprising: to extract a single, crystalized picture from a multi-faceted, historically steeped and traditionally defined wine producing culture. It is a lot to distill into one category known as “Vin De France”. To do so, French wine has been reorganized to fit this “one terroir” model by focusing on grape variety rather than region. Those grape varieties are coupled with the notion of an effortlessly chic “French lifestyle” to create a simple, convivial image of French wine.

France is by far the largest wine exporting country in the world by value, with almost 10 billion Euros of globally exported product in 2019 (by volume, it falls third to Spain and Italy whose bulk wine markets tip the scales). Vin De France represents 16% of all French still wine exports, which translates to 340 million bottles. Most of the wines in the Vin De France category are exported with only 26% of them sold in France.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the “Vin De France” designation. Now the official national denomination, the designation gives French wine producers the freedom to label wines by varietal (single or blends) with grapes that come from a single region or blended from multiple regions. The designation of “Vin De France” came into use in the vintage of 2010 to give a voice to wines that do not conform to specific geographic definition. In order to better understand the category of Vin De France, here’s a quick lesson on French labelling categories:

-wines labelled as “AOP” (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) have the most restrictive growing and winemaking regulations as well as the most regionally specific geographic designations in France

-wines categorized as “IGP” (Indication Géographique Protégée) have less restrictive growing and winemaking regulations, they are also from broader wine growing regions

-“Vin De France” is a category apart – multi-regional blends are permitted and grape varieties are listed on the label.

“Vin De France” is not to be confused with “Vin de pays”, a designation no longer used as it was absorbed into the IGP category of wines in 2009. Given these clearly defined differences, it is important to note that these are complementary and not competing categories of wine.

“Vin De France” permits the use of grape varietal labelling. This very fact is a great advantage to these wines that compete in a global value-priced category that are almost entirely varietally-labelled. “Liberty, Quality and Creativity” is the motto that simply states the three pillars of the Vin De France designation. “Liberty” refers to the fact that wine producers are not bound by regional restrictions, growing or winemaking regulations. “Quality” alludes to the value-for-money that the designation exemplifies. “Creativity” refers to the unrestricted milieu of the designation that can prove a playground for experimental, free-thinking and innovative winemaking. While the motto is a clever marketing initiative, is the realm of Vin De France one that has become a breeding ground for innovation? Does it encourage higher quality wine production in this generic category? Is the aphorism prophetic?

With these questions on my mind, I was curious when the ANIVIN organization, the caretakers of the “Vin De France” designation,  proposed a tasting for our team at WineAlign earlier this month. There was no denying that the wines were well priced and that overall, the category represented very good value. From a wine critic’s perspective, the urge to research the origin of the grapes in these wines was almost overwhelming at first, especially when the wines were very good. Wondering if the pinot noir grapes were from Côtes de Nuits or if the viognier was from the Languedoc was preoccupying at first until I realized, there was no way to definitively know without going to great lengths. Besides, the aim of this category is not to represent a particular region but to be varietally representative. With that change of perspective, I tried to define what the characteristics of a “French” chardonnay, syrah or grenache were. I quickly came to understand that the answer could not simply be found in the organoleptic profile of the wine. The definition, if there was one to be found, was much more holistic. This is where the lifestyle piece of the puzzle fits in. The definition of French wine is, in part, personal and up for interpretation. For many, “French wine” brings to mind notions of class, sophistication, outdoor cafés, markets, poetry, fine dining, the importance of mealtimes, high fashion, an uncompromising attitude, seduction, intellectual pursuits, to name a few! What Vin De France seems to encourage is a joint approach to the definition of French wine – an assemblage of French grape varieties and French “mode de vie”.

Let me be clear about the use of the word “French” when describing these grape varieties. Both the best known and the most widely planted grape varieties in the world come from France. Cabernet sauvignon, malbec, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, are some of the world’s most recognized grape names. Are they indigenous to the region? Some are but many are not. If you look back far enough, the middle eastern basin was the cradle to many of the parents of grape varieties used for wine production today. Yet France was the nexus for the transformation of these important grape varieties into quality wine and eventually to commercially viable success stories. Like much of Europe, the names of grape varieties remain veiled behind names of appellations (regional designations). Outside of Europe, wine naming and labelling has tended to showcase the grape variety. Unable to use the protected names of Old World regions, emerging New World wine producers used varietal names that became more recognizable to international consumers. Argentina made “malbec” a household name due to the lush and accessible wines that have been exported, but many people don’t realize that the grape is a French staple in the region of Cahors and Bordeaux. The decade-old “Vin De France” appellation now puts France in the grape varietal game. In contrast, the European appellation system built to protect the traditions of a wine region, does not promote named grape varietals. In this context, Vin De France can be seen as a complementary designation.

The aim to spread this message globally has resulting in a number of campaigns, most importantly that of the annual Best Value Vin De France Selection Tasting, an awards program that ranks the top wines in this vast category. Just before the world buckled down to flatten the COVID curve, the recent 2020 Best Value Vin De France tasting took place in Paris by a panel of global wine buyers from 14 different countries. You can view the full results here or keep an eye out for the round, gold bottle stickers featuring the Eiffel Tower, reserved for the top ranking wines of the selection. This year 435 wines were tasted from 93 wineries across the country resulting in 131 medals, 52 of which were gold. The “Best Value Selection Tasting” transparently caps the number of medals at 30% of the total entries.

I tasted far fewer than 435 wines at our office but overall, the wines seemed to embody that effortless charm of the French. “Ce n’est pas compliqué!” is an expression that you cannot help but overhear in conversations throughout France that seems to sum up the wines to a T. To generalize, the wines tasted were well-suited to convivial settings, uncomplicated, accessible and of good value. Above all, clarity seems to be the underlying aim of the Vin De France category. Wines are clearly labelled with the name of the grape variety and give consumers an indication of what to expect. There is no consumer confusion as to which grape varieties are permitted or what defines a “cru” in more regionally specific appellations.

What was most apparent after this tasting is that the wines had a distinctly modern feel; superficially modern in packaging (and marketing) but also viscerally modern in the glass. The best wines showed a sleek cleanliness, aromatic integrity and varietal distinctiveness.  Balanced, fruit-forward and meant for immediate consumption were all commonalities. These were stylishly produced wines primed to compete in a global market. A cynic may say that “France doesn’t need this”, but the reality of the matter is that there is a large amount of wine that is produced in France. Shouldn’t there be an impetus to elevate the standards of the generic level of wine to something more? By creating more current guidelines, encouraging creative expression, investment and promoting the best in this category, the framework is being set for upward trending success.

Below you’ll find our top picks from our tasting of the Vin De France wines recently in market. Many of these selections are year-round finds but I imagine that the holiday season is a prime time for these wines that won’t break the bank and will appeal widely. (NOTE: The agents who represent these wines have been indicated and you can contact them regarding a wine’s availability as well.) Although there were many eye-openers in the group, I was particularly surprised by the quality of the pinot noir category. Given pinot noir’s fickle nature, there are few countries that can reliably produce top value and I hope to continue to see this within the Vin De France classification.

Vin De France Critic Picks

Click here for a complete list of wines reviewed.

Domaine Doudet-Naudin 2018 Chardonnay, Vin De France, $15.60
Artisanal Wine Imports
Sara d’Amato – Doudet-Naudin is a well-known house with substantial vineyard pedigree. Given their breadth of wine sourcing, they are perfectly poised to produce top value Vin De France. This cool-fermented chardonnay is unoaked save 15% aged in barrel (along with a few chips) keeping the aromatics high and the price low.

Les Hauts de Sainte Marie Astérie Sauvignon Blanc, Vin De France, $22.80 (SAQ)
Elixirs, Vins et Spiritueux
Sara d’Amato – A big hit at our tasting, this sauvignon blanc was a notable top value. Un-sulfured, this concentrated gem is named after the limestone soils from the Oligocene era on which the grapes are planted. Can we look forward to future Vin De France wines named after soil types – a trend I would be pleased to see perpetuated in this un-shackled category.

Lurton Les Fumées Blanches 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, Vin De France, $13.95
Trajectory Beverage Partners
David Lawrason – Here’s a light and very fresh sauvignon that nicely offers both green apple fruit, fresh herbs and lemon-lime citrus. It is light bodied, crisp and zesty with bitter grapefruit and lemon on the finish. A hint of rounding sweetness helps; the length is very good. Very good value.

La Petite Perrière 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, Vin De France, $13.95
Churchill Cellars
David Lawrason – From producer Guy Saget this is a well-balanced, light sauvignon that bears resemblance to Sancerre if missing its depth and minerality. The nose shows a weave of fruit and herbs – kiwi, grapefruit, guava, plus juniper and mint.

Le Secret Des Amants 2018 Chapitre 2 La Rencontre Viognier, Vin De France, $21.95
Gradwell Wine Agency
David Lawrason – Here’s bright, exotic and totally correct viognier with classic aromas of apricot, starfruit, mandarin and licorice. It is medium weight, smooth indeed almost satin-like with a hint of sweetness, decent balancing acidity and very good to excellent length.

Henry Fessy 2019 Gamay Noir, Vin De France, $16.95
Mark Anthony Wines and Spirits
David Lawrason – This has a bright, generous floral and slightly confected nose of strawberry/cherry fruit very much expected of gamay. There are also hay and subtle herbal/peppery notes. It is bigger on the palate than expected with considerable alcohol heat, tho’ only showing 13.5%. Acidity is firm, tannins are light.

Horizon de Bichot 2018 Pinot Noir, Vin De France, $20.00 (SAQ)
Elixirs, Vins et Spiritueux Inc.
Sara d’Amato – A lightly reductive, flinty, peppery and crunchy pinot noir from the well-known négociant Albert Bichot. As a Vin De France the wine doesn’t particularly characterize any distinct region but it comes across as fresh, lively and stylish. Offering a silky palate and an approachable disposition. Convivial and refreshing. Not simple despite its price but it won’t prove challenging for novice pinot drinkers either.

La Petite Perrière 2019 Pinot Noir, Vin De France, $16 (SAQ)
Vinéo Inc.
David Lawrason – This is by Saget, a larger company based in France’s Loire Valley, so this is likely the origin of the fruit. It has fairly deep colour. The nose is reserved but quite ripe and youthful with florals and almost baked cherry pie fruit. It is medium bodied, fairly well rounded with good acidity, some alcohol heat and slightly astringent tannin. A year or two ageing would help.

Le Secret Des Amants 2018 Chapitre 1 Les Amants Naissants Syrah, Vin De France, $21.95
Gradwell Wine Agency
David Lawrason – This is a very modern, supple and smooth style of syrah. The nose is generous with ripe black cherry, florals, considerable black pepper and chocolate. It is medium-full bodied, nicely smooth with buffed tannins. Focused and very approachable.

Le Secret Des Amants 2018 Chapitre 4 La Parade Malbec, Vin De France, $21.95
Gradwell Wine Agency
David Lawrason – This is a pleasant, plummy malbec with quite ripe blackberry, sweet oak and dusty aromas. There is almost a perfumed florality as well. It is medium-full bodied, fairly dense and juicy and indeed solid. Tannins are firm, the palate is smooth.

Cave de Tain 2017 King In The North Syrah, Vin De France, $19.95
Noble Wine Estates
Sara d’Amato – Often a fine value, this is a good quality, medium-bodied syrah with pepper and fleshy roasted red pepper on the palate along with plum and licorice.
David Lawrason  – Cave de Tain is co-operative winery well-known for their esteemed collection of member owned sites. The wine captures a distinctive aromatic, peppery nerviness of the variety that is showcased only with optimally ripened fruit. The nose is a bit reserved with a meaty note, pepper, oak spice and dark cherry/pomegranate fruit. It is quite full bodied, firm and dense, but the flavour concentration is not quite what I hoped.

Félix & Lucie 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah Grenache, Vin De France, $14.95
Arterra Wines Canada
Sara d’Amato – A label crafted for export; this southern France inspired blend is immensely flavourful for the price. This is full bodied, moderately tannic, well made, good structure, modern but not pandering.


Sara d’Amato

This feature was commissioned by Anivin de France. As a regular feature, WineAlign tastes wines submitted by a single winery, agent or region. Our writers independently, as always, taste, review and rate the wines – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted on WineAlign. We then independently recommend wines to appear in the article. Wineries, wine agents, or regions pay for this service. Ads for some wines may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, and its content, is entirely up to WineAlign.