The wine laws which exist in France and the entire European Community are implemented by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, INAO. In the late part of the 19th century the Phylloxera pest and Downy Mildew destroyed French vineyards and as a result wines were being fraudulently produced, under French region names, in places like Algiers.
Vineyards were eventually restored and to maintain the good French name, the appellation system was put in place to make sure that a wine labeled Bordeaux, for example, really did come from Bordeaux!
Let’s take a look at each appellation category starting with the top end classification:
Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AC) This is the premiere classification for French wines. Tight guidelines state that to have AC on your label, grapes must have been grown within a specific zone – this zone starts at a regional level, then village level and finally vineyard – the smaller the zone, the greater the quality of wine. Grapes must meet a minimum level of sugar and resulting alcohol, yields must not exceed a maximum level and furthermore, the vineyards must be maintained using certain methods. The wine has to pass the taste test, which can often be performed by a local panel – consumers have expectations of how wines should taste from certain AC classifications and this is how it is maintained.
Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) These laws follow the guidelines of AC, except they are slightly less stringent on grape varieties and yields. Some wines have been upgraded from VDQS to AC – it is sometimes viewed as a stepping-stone to AC.
Vin de Pays “wine of the country” This classification was established in 1979 to give credit to some of the better lower-end wines of France and to try to upgrade the quality of wines from some areas who were producing in bulk, e.g. le Midi. These wines must again meet criteria in area of production, grape varieties, yields and methodical standards. However these rules are provided with much broader bands – although they are very broad, they still ensure a good quality of wine. 20% of French wines are within this grouping.
Vin de Table “table wine” This category has the least restrictions. It can be produced in any part of France with no restriction on variety. There is no maximum yield, however if the grower is producing over 100hl/ha, a certain percentage of this yield must be sent for distillation at a cheaper price – this was an attempt on behalf of the authorities to lower yield and improve grape varieties used. 30% of French wines are vin de table, the greater majority being red and from the warmer southern regions.
This is the basis of French wine making and trade. With this basic knowledge we can make a slightly better educated decision at the wine store!