Terroir and the History of French Wine Classification


French vintners and wine makers have a long history of building a culture around their terroir. Although this simple word is French for “land,” it means a lot more in French culture. Philip Whalen cites a good explanation by John Wilson:

“In addition to the ‘physical elements of the vineyard habitat, the vine, subsoil, site, drainage and microclimate,’ Wilson includes a spiritual component: ‘beyond the measurable ecosystem, there is an additional dimension – the spiritual aspect that recognizes the joys, the heartbreaks, the pride, the sweat and the frustrations of its history.’”

Terroir might be a foreign concept to an urban dweller, but it might make sense to someone who grew up on a farm or vineyard. If you love French wine, it doesn’t matter whether you understand a spiritual attachment to land. You can still wonder how your favorite French wines got their name. The following article begins to answer this question and is based in part on the book, Wine for Dummies, by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan (1995).

Thank Heaven for the Greeks!

Grapes for making wine were introduced to Gaul, which later became known as France, by the Greeks long before the Roman conquest. Centuries later, French wines rose to world prominence. It wasn’t until 1935 that the French national government passed a law from which the modern classification of wine originated. Today, France is a member of the European Union (EU), and the union has incorporated French wine law into modern wine classification in EU countries.

French Wine Laws

In 1935, the government of France established the Appellation Controlée (abbreviated AOC), a legal system for naming French wines after places of origin. In the French wine classification hierarchy, there are four levels, or ranks, of wines:

1. Appellation Controlée – the place name of a French wine, such as Appellation Burgundy Controlée; abbreviated AOC or AC.

2. Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure – French for “demarcated wine of superior quality” (VDQS).

3. Vins de pays – a wine from the country; a region much bigger than a place named in AOC or VDQS.

4. Vins de table – a table wine with no regional information; French law specifies that the wine label will not include the variety of grapes or the vintage.

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One Response to “Terroir and the History of French Wine Classification”

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