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The EU wine market regulation in force since 2009 has, among other things, changed the wine designation law in the member states. France has always used the Romanesque wine designation system, which follows the principle of origin. This principle states that the closer a wine's geographical origin can be narrowed down - according to certain criteria - the higher its quality. Since the principle of origin is also a central foundation of the wine market reform, the changes in French wine labelling law are manageable from the consumer's point of view at first glance.

Red wine grapes (Photo: FranceAgriMer)

Categories, regulatory authorities and intermediate levels

According to the new system, there will be only three wine categories in France in future - as in all EU countries: Wines with a protected designation of origin (Appellation d'Origine Protégée - AOP), wines with a protected geographical indication (Indication Géographique Protégée - IGP) and wines without a protected designation of origin (Vin de France). The previous categories could essentially be clearly transferred into the new ones. The quality wines with controlled designation of origin (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée - AOC) became AOP wines, the country wines (Vins de Pays) became IGP wines and the table wines (Vins de Table) became wines without protected designation of origin.

With the reform, the administrative responsibility for the new categories also changed. The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) is now centrally responsible for wines with a protected designation of origin (AOP and IGP). These wines must meet strict specifications and there is an internal and external control plan for the entire production process from grape to bottle. Wines without a protected designation of origin (Vin de France) are subject to the supervision of the Anivin de France association.

The previous category Appellation d'Origine Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (AOVDQS) - a preliminary stage to AOC - was dissolved on 1 January 2012. The wines of this intermediate category therefore had to be assigned either AOP status or IGP status, with special requirements to be taken into account in each case (see AOP specifications below). 17 of the 19 previous VDQS appellations raised their standards and were converted to AOP. At its own request, the south-western French appellation Lavilledieu was converted into an IGP and the Loire appellation Thouarsais was integrated into the AOP Anjou.

The classifications within individual wine-growing regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy are not affected by the new regulations, as their criteria are stricter than the European requirements. Each EU member state has the possibility to define further, narrower origins in addition to the required appellations of origin.

Vine rows (Photo: FranceAgriMer)

Wines with protected designation of origin

The wine market reform in France must be fully implemented by 2014. From then on, only the new designations may be used, but until then a coexistence of old and new terms is permitted. What effects the EU wine market reform has in detail on the French wine designations is shown in the following consideration:

Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP)
Wines with a protected geographical indication (IGP) were previously called Vins de Pays (VdP). Even today, IGP must always appear on the bottle label; only during the transitional period until the end of 2013 may the term "Vin de Pays" be indicated additionally - but not exclusively. From 2014, only IGP will be valid as a designation.

Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP)
The protected designation of origin (AOP) was previously called Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC). AOP may only appear on the bottle label if the wine fulfils the - partly stricter - requirements for the new designation, which focus in particular on the so-called reference to the terroir. In EU law, the reference to the terroir applies to all foodstuffs and must now be stipulated in the specifications of each appellation. Accordingly, AOP wines must come from a delimited area with an individual terroir (i.e. a special, unmistakable combination of soil and climatic factors) and show this origin in a sensory and analytically comprehensible way. The specifications define the production criteria or - in the diction of EU law - product specifications that a wine must fulfil in order to be allowed to bear the designation of origin in question. These include, for example, the exact delineation of the area, the description of the wine type, specified grape varieties, the maximum yield, authorised winemaking processes, etc. By the end of 2013, all AOCs must have been converted into AOPs. Before then, wines for which the specifications have not yet been recognised by the INAO and the EU Commission may only be called AOC as before. From 2014, only AOP will appear on the bottle label, AOC will then no longer be allowed. Wines that have not completed the conversion from AOC to AOP must bear a lower designation of origin, provided they meet its requirements.

Vineyard near Bergheim in Alsace (Photo: FranceAgriMer)

Regional classifications

The new wine market regulation has no influence on the classifications within the individual appellations. To a certain extent, these are part of the internal regional organisation. The competent winegrowers' association of an appellation can decide on even stricter classifications beyond the minimum requirements for the protected designation of origin and the existing classifications. A brief look at some of the main French wine-growing regions reveals the diversity of regulations:

In Bordeaux, the designation "Grand Cru" is used for the property of a vineyard (château) or the Grand Vin produced by it (i.e. not for a second wine). Site and château are thus equated with each other, so to speak. The majority of the leading Bordeaux wine estates have joined forces in the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. The rules are different in the appellations:

  • In the Graves, a classification for red and white wines took place in 1953 and 1959 with the single level "Cru Classé des Graves". This designation only concerns châteaux located within the AOP Pessac Léognan.
  • In the Médoc, a five-tier system from "Premier Cru" to "Cinquième Cru" was created as part of the Bordeaux classification of 1855. The 61 Médoc vineyards are called "Grands Crus Classés", including Château Haut-Brion, a Premier Grand Cru Classé in the Graves region.
  • In Pomerol, there is still no classification system.
  • In Saint-Émilion, a classification was introduced in 1955. There are four levels: "Premier Grand Cru Classé A", "Premier Grand Cru Classé B", "Grand Cru Classé" and "Grand Cru". The classification is reviewed about every ten years.
  • In Sauternes, there is no class designated as Grand Cru. The three classification levels established here in 1855 are "Premier Cru Classé Supérieur" (as the only winery Château d'Yquem), "Premieur Cru Classé" and "Deuxième Cru Classé".

In Burgundy, "Grand Cru" - in contrast to Bordeaux - designates a vineyard, whereby this regulation goes back to an official classification of all vineyards of the Côte d'Or carried out in 1935. All Grands Crus are classified here as their own appellation, which means that the individual Grands Crus each represent a specific AOP. The second highest level, "Premier Cru", denotes a site within a communal appellation. In addition, "Clos" (enclosed vineyard) also sometimes signifies a certain, but unofficial, mark of quality.

In Beaujolais, which belongs to Burgundy in terms of wine law, there are ten communes with cru status.

In Champagne, individual communes are classified as crus according to the quality of their grapes. In Champagne, "Grand Cru" or "Premier Cru" means that the (sparkling) wine must be made one hundred percent from grapes from correspondingly classified sites. However, neither term is a protected designation of origin in its own right.

In Alsace, 51 sites are classified as Grands Crus in the Alsace AOP.

In Languedoc, a three-tier quality system was introduced in 2011 with the levels "Languedoc AOC", "Grands Vins du Languedoc" and "Grands Crus du Languedoc". However, this is a quality segmentation on the part of the Languedoc wine association that has no administrative implications.

Red wine vine (Photo: FranceAgriMer)

Terroir reference under discussion

Even though in the course of the wine market reform the AOP specifications were examined and partly tightened, the regulations of the winegrowers' association SEVE, which advocates an "ethical revision" of French viticulture and particularly emphasises the terroir idea, do not yet go far enough. Sommelière and wine blogger Émilie Merienne summarises SEVE's argumentation and criticises that since the 1970s, many vinification methods have been adopted in the AOC statutes without their influence on terroir expression in wine being known or adequately studied. So today there are two types of wines under the protected designation of origin: on the one hand, "genuine" terroir wines, which are produced by "committed winegrowers with respect for nature, wine and consumers" under high standards and at great expense, and on the other hand, standard wines.On the other hand, there are standard wines that are produced "for pleasure, but without originality, character or originality" in large quantities and at low cost. German importers and traders confirm this problem. "The result is disastrous: one lowers the demands on terroir in order to obtain wines from it in larger quantities, and renounces top-class wines or the revenues that can be achieved with them. On the one hand, they want to implement the demand for terroir wines in all appellations, but on the other hand, they are putting the profitability of the whole thing at risk," says Merienne.

SEVE demands that the new AOP regulations clearly differentiate between the two wine identities in order to ensure quality. Wines that do not comply with SEVE's terroir principles should not be granted AOP status, but only IGP status. According to Merienne, the content of the AOP specifications has been finalised since the turn of the year 2011/2012, but the issue of terroir was dealt with rather superficially in most cases and the vinification methods were not questioned. The wine market reform has enabled each EU country to homogenise and standardise its production methods, and in France some methods that were previously forbidden are now allowed to be used, Merienne explains. Her summary is bitter: "In the end, the reform of designations of origin has brought us less transparency, less reference to terroir and instead more permissible interventions in winemaking."

To the article "EU wine market regulation - Part 1: The new wine designation law - terms and background".

To the article "EU wine market regulation - Part 2: The new wine labelling law in Germany and Austria".

To the article "EU wine market regulation - Part 3: The new wine labelling law in Italy".

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