Beginners Guide to French Wine Classificaton

Beginners Guide to French Wine Classificaton

Beginners Guide to French Wine Classificaton

A Beginners Beginners Guide

The concept gôut de terroir or a "taste of place" in a wine was first presented by the French. They believe terroir is what separates one region from another, and ultimately, one wine from another. As each region is different in terms of climate, soils, topography, slope, elevation, exposure and sunlight, each should have its own grape varieties and wine styles defined by law.

The French wine classification system delimits regions, regulates varieties, wine styles and alcohol content and organizes French wines in a hierarchical fashion. The official goal is to define a relationship between terroir or place of origin and relative quality. Practically speaking, however, as a buyer, it is wise to look for a producer with a good reputation as well as the classification on the label.

What to Look For

Unlike the United States and other New World countries (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Canada), French wines are organized not according to varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and so forth) but by geography and producer. Here are some fundamentals to think about when looking at French wine labels.

  • Most French wines are named after places (registered and defined under law).
  • The French wine system is hierarchical. Some wines and place rank higher than other.
  • In general, the smaller and more specific the place, the higher the rank.
  • Rank does not necessarily indicate quality.
  • Rank is always stated on the label, usually in small letters underneath the name of the wine.

There are four possible ranks of French wine by law. Look for the following phrases on the label of any French wine:

  • Appellation Contrôlée (short for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), AOC or AC, was introduced in the 1930's, and is the highest ranking. This system designates geographic names. It also controls which grapes can be planted where. The name of the place where the wine is from will usually appear between the "A" and the "C" such as Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée.
  • Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS wines). These are wines from a specific area of superior quality. The words ususally appear on the label just below the name. This is a small category, and is gradually being phased out.
  • Vins de Pays. This name means "country wines", and on the label the phrase is followed by the place where the grapes were grown. This place is generally much larger than those of wines with higher ranks.
  • Vins de table. These are "table wines", ordinary French wines with no indication of geography, variety or vintage on the label.

    *Note: The American counterpart to the French AOC system is the American Viticultural Area (AVA); in Italy it is Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and the higher-quality Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG); in Spain it is Denominación de Origen (DO).

AOC wines can be further classified are on a regional basis, such as the Classified Growths of Bordeaux and the Premier and Grand Crus of Burgundy. More about these later.

What's in a cru?

The terminology of French wine classification is not completely straigtforward. It tends to vary from region to region. A key word to always look for, however, is cru.

The word cru has been in use since the days of Ancient Rome. It is a French term for a vineyard (or alternately, "growth"), usually one of high quality. A cru that has been classified is called a cru classé or classed growth. The terms Premier (first) or Grand crus can also have a very specific meaning in certain regions such as Alsace and Burgundy.

Bordeaux

The most well-known regional-based classification is the Bordeaux Official Classification of 1855. The rankings were constructed based on price, which at the time was considered the most accurate indication of quality. The Official Classification ranked the properties of the of Médoc and one of Graves, Haut-Brion, which was too important to omit. Château Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from second to first growth in 1973.

Premier Crus (First Growths): Ch. Lafite-Rothschild, Ch. Margaux, Ch. Latour, Ch. Haut-Brion and Ch. Mouton-Rotchschild (added in 1973).

Other classed growths:

  • Deuxièmes Crus (Second Growths) 14
  • Troisièmes Crus (Third Growths) 14
  • Quatrième Crus (Fourth Growths) 10
  • Cinquième Crus (Fifth Growths) 18
  • Cru Borgeois (A level just below Fifth Growth first classified in 1932.)

That same year, the châteaux of Sauternes-Barsac were organized into three rankings:

  • Premier Cru Supérior (First Great Growth): the rank for Sauternes and Sauternes only; and considered even higher than Premier Cru.
  • Premier Crus (First Growths)
  • Deuxième Crus (Second Growths)

The 1855 Bordeaux classification was amended in 1953 to include the remainder of the red wines of Graves, and in 1959 to include the whites. St. Emilion was officially classified in 1955, reclassified in 1985, and revised once more in 1996. Two rankings are included: Premier Grand Cru Classè and Grand Cru Classè. The only important Bordeaux district never to have been classified is Pomerol, although Ch. Pétrus is certainly considered first growth quality.

Burgundy

In Burgundy, the best wines from the best plots of land (climats) are classified as:

  • Grand Crus (such as Corton-Charlemagne and Chamberton)
  • Premier Crus (such as Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet)

Alsace

The Alsace Grand Cru appellation was created in 1983, and signifies a wine from a single vineyard site in a single vintage from one of the four permitted varieties, Riesling, Muscat, Gewürztraminer or Pinot Gris. Some of the top négociants have Grand Cru vineyard sites, but use the name by which they have historically sold their wine, as in F.E. Trimbach's Clos Ste.-Hune Riesling, which comes from the Grand Cru Rosaker.

Champagne

Champagne is the only major French region to have just one appellation; however, its 301 vineyards are classified into 17 Grand Crus and 38 Premier Crus.

Beaujolais

The top communes (villages) in Beaujolais are called crus as in Cru Beaujolais.