France is not only the world’s most famous wine growing country, it also takes credit for being one of the oldest as well. The ancient Romans began cultivating vines in the 6th century. Remains can be spotted all over France in Bordeaux as well in the Rhone Valley. France is second in production of wine in terms of volume, Only Spain makes more wine today.
Currently, over 861,000 hectares are planted with the purpose of growing grapes for wine in France. Depending on the vintage, this equates to between 7 and 8 billion bottles of wine per year! Of that ocean of wine, about 70% of it is red and 30% is devoted to white wine. While wine is produced all over France, the most important appellations are Alsace, Beaujolais, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Corsica, Jura, Languedoc-Roussillon, Lorie, Provence, Rhone Valley, Savoy and South West France. More than 60 different grape varieties are planted. for the production of red and white wine. Obviously some grape varietals are more important than others due to their ability to produce, complex, age worthy wines of character and distinction.
The top ten grapes with the highest concentration of planted vineyard hectares in France are:
#1 Merlot 13.6% 1116, 715 hectares
#2 Grenache 11.3% 97.171 hectares
#3 Ugni Blanc 9.7% 83,173 hectares
#4 Syrah 8.1% 69,891 hectares
#5 Carignan 6.9% 59,210 hectares
#6 Cabernet Sauvignon 6.7% 57,913 hectares
#7 Chardonnay 5.1%
#8 Cabernet Franc 4.4% 37,508 hectares
#9 Gamay 3.7% 31,771 hectares
#10 Pinot Noir 3.4% 29,576 hectares
While most French wines are blends of one or more grape varieties, that is not always the case. In Burgundy, only Pinot Noir is used for red wines, while Chardonnay is the only allowable grape used in the production on white wine. In Bordeaux, the vast majority of wines are blends. However, in St, Emilion and Pomerol, some of the most famous producers make wines from 100% Merlot. The type of wine and the choice to blend or not starts with the vineyards and the terroir they are planted in. Much of where the fruit was planted has an impact of the quality, character and style of wine. In large part, this has to do with choices made by the wine maker, grower and the terroir.
Terroir is more of a concept than a specifically identifiable trait. Terroir encompasses a myriad of important natural conditions including: the soil, altitude, elevation, exposure to the sun, temperature ranges, access to water, trees, types of rock on and in the soil and microclimate for each appellation or vineyard. Climate is also one of the key factors. Terroir alone does not make a wine. The wine makers decisions of the grower and wine maker can have an equal impact of the wine. If that was not the case, how do you explain two completely different expressions of wine from the same vineyard? The uniqueness of terroir in part gave birth the to often cumbersome French system of classifying their numerous wines, countless regions and appellations.
The most famous classification of French wine took place in 1855, the year of the original Bordeaux wine classification. The 1855 classification only takes into consideration 61 different chateaux from the Medoc and Haut Brion from Pessac Leognan. The wines of Sauternes were also classified in 1855. St. Emilion was first classified in 1955. That classification is redone every 10 years. This was followed by the classification of Graves, which took place in 1959. To learn more about Bordeaux along with facts and figures of its production: Production Facts, Figures for Bordeaux But what about the rest of the wine producing regions of France?
In 1935, the INAO, Institut National des Appellations d’Origine defined strict, specific, appellation characteristics to help guide the consumer, promote minimum levels of quality and energize growers into producing better wines. In 1935, French law was written, with the help of the INAO that created the four main categories we are familiar with today.
Vin de Table – Wines with this designation are listed as being from France and provide the producers name on the label.
Vin de Pays – Wines using that designation were produced from a specific, major, wine growing region, they also state the producers name and France.
Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure is seldom encountered. Less than 1% of all French wines bear that designation. It similar, but less restrictive than the more commonly seen AOC classification.
Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée AOC, accounts for 53.4% of all wines from France. There is a reason AOC takes up the majority of the classifications, more than 450 separate and potentially distinct AOC’s are in use today. There are a series of rules and regulations that go along with being classified as an AOC wine. This includes the specific area where the fruit was grown and the wine was made, the type of grape planted in the vineyard, specific production methods, minimum levels of alcohol and maximum levels of yields. Every quality grower produces wine from lower yields and higher level of alcohol than is allowed by law.
The French and Europe enjoy classifications. It took long enough, but a new system for the classification of wines from France was created in 2012 to replace the previous, antiquated, classification. The purpose was to bring France in line with all the growing regions in France. The 2012 classification system is simpler as it relies on three levels of basic classifications instead of four. Plus more information will be available to the consumer on the new labels as allowable by law.
The new categories are:
Vin de France – The new classification, which replaces Vin de Table, allows wine labels to include the type of grape variety and the specific vintage for the wine.
Indication Géographique Protégée – IGP will be used instead of Vin de Pays.
Appellation d’Origine Protégée – AOP is intended to replace the previously important AOC classification. Not much else has changed in this classification, other than the name.