The French Classification System

The organization of the French wine industry is based on a system of classifications, which guarantee the origin of a wine from a demarcated area. Its specific purpose is to guarantee authenticity however it is now thought to protect the producer more than the consumer. The system was developed by the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1930’s after pressure from producers of high quality wine who were concerned with the over-production of low quality wine during this period. This pressure resulted in the establishment of the Institute National des Appellations d’Origine des Vins et Eaux de Vie (INAO). The INAO consists of twelve regional committees: Alsace and Eastern France, Champagne, Southwest, Loire Valley, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, Rhône Valley, Provence-Corsica, Vins Doux Naturels, Cognac, Armagnac and Eaux-de-Vie de Cidre.

French wines are placed into four main categories; Vin de Table, Vin de Pays (VDP), Vin Dèlimitè de Qualitè Supèrieure (VDQS) and Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC). In the three quality wine categories (VDP, VDQS and AOC), the wines are tasted and analysed before any classification is granted.

In general the laws of a Vin de Pays region are more flexible than for AOC and VDQS. The great success of VDP, especially Vin de Pays d’Oc, has been in producing and marketing varietal wines (i.e. Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah). These wines compete with those from the New World and provide consumers with an easily recognisable style. This competition with New World wines has led to the demystification of labeling and an increase in promotion and advertising. Vin de Pays is certainly the area to watch in the battle to dominate varietal wines. The marketing-driven approach of VDP wines is in marked contrast to the traditionally apathetic approach of most French AOCs. The need for quality is also key in order to compete and this is reflected in the prices many VDP wines achieve on the market. Many are achieving higher prices than AOC wines (traditionally the highest quality French wines), as a consequence of this quality and consumer appeal.

In general, the laws of any AOC control the following: the area entitled to the name; permitted grape varieties; density of vine plants; minimum alcohol levels; and yields. Within many regions there can be a hierarchy of appellations. The AOC classification is however no longer a guarantee of quality. The AOC laws have come under increased criticism as being outdated and anti-competitive, providing only a collective marketing facade under which some mediocre wine producers can shelter. The limitations imposed by the system have meant that some producers choose specifically not to classify their product as AOC in order to retain maximum flexibility in their viticultural and winemaking techniques and in order to compete with wines from the New World.

The laws of VDQS mirror those of the AOC. Regions are granted VDQS status with the expectation that they will later be promoted to AOC.