French wine : understanding the label & value for money
you could spend
over 50,000 Euros or 75,000 Dollars on a single bottle of French wine,
there is absolutely no sane reason for doing so. People who spend such
money on 75 centilitres of red liquid are either people with more
money than sense, or investors hoping to fleece people with more money
than sense at a later date.
The record price paid for
a bottle of French wine was $156,000 for a bottle of 1787
Lafitte, sold at Christies in 1985.
Yet for those with
their feet on the ground, an expensive French wine will be one that in
France sells for over 30 € a bottle; a bottle of cheap wine
can be had
for little over 1 €uro. Between the two lie the rest. The
below are designed to help ordinary wine lovers understand the
complexities of French wine labelling, and obtain the best value for
contrôlée / Appellation d'Origine
Protégée (AOC / AOP) The
European AOP classification is in the process of replacing the old
French AOC classification, following a European ruling in
2009. The terms are most frequently used in the classification
wines, but more recently has been extended to act as a label of quality
and authenticity for certain regional and local specialities, including
cheeses. On the label of a wine bottle, the words Appellation
or Appellation protégée generally indicate that
the wine is of good
quality, and has come from a specific region. However, wines that come
with the Appellation label can be of very varying quality,
depending on the appellation. At the lower end of the scale come the
large regional appellations, such as Bordeaux, Bourgogne
or Côtes du Rhône.
Selection of top quality Burgundies, from Pommard, a "grand
cru" area in the Côtes de Beaune vineyard area.
each main region however there are other more specific and
higher quality appellations, from smaller areas, such as Médoc,
or, Côte Rôtie, or Côtes de Beaune.
smaller areas, there are often even more limited local districts,
generally recognised as producing the best wines in the region such as
Pernand-Vergelesses or Pommard, (villages in the Burgundian vineyards)
Pauillac, home of some of the very top Bordeaux wines. The system is
rather different in Alsace and Champagne.
In addition to indicating where a wine comes from,
appellation contrôlée label indicates that the
wine will have come from
specific grape varieties, grown under controlled conditions.
Appellation contrôlée rules stipulated, for
example, that only a
certain volume of wine could be produced each year with a particular
label. Any excess production can only be sold off under a broader
appellation, if there is one, or else as "declassified wine" (vin
déclassé), and obviously at a lower price. New
European wine rules are
designed to increase production of well-known
and by doing so increase incentives to make consistently good wines
that can compete on world markets.
Appellation contrôlée label was granted in 1923,
to protect the name
and reputation of wine being sold under the name Châteauneuf
In 1935, the system was adopted nationally, with the creation of a
national regulatory body, the Institut National des
appellations d'origine. Today, it is very hard to obtain a
new Appellation controlee.
: name given to some AOC sparkling wines from Burgundy, the Loire
valley, the Jura or Alsace. These wines are produced in the same way as
Champagne, but cannot call themselves Champagne, since the name is
reserved for wines actually from the Champagne region. See Champagne or other
These are wines from estates in the Medoc and Haut
that were not classified in the 1855 listing. The "Cru
label was first attributed in 1920, and a numer of other
and properties have obtained the classification since then - over 400
in all.. Generally speaking, the words "Cru Bourgeois" on a
label are a good guarantee of quality, and since these wines are
considerably cheaper than the Grands Crus, they usually represent
excellent value for money.
Label granted since 1855 to the 61 best estates in the Médoc
producing some of France's reputedly greatest wines. See
used for wines from Saint
Emilion, and for the best Alsace and Burgundy wines.
Medoc Grands crus
are classed in five groups, from Premier Grand Cru to
cinquième grand cru (5th group).
designation is also used in some other areas, notably Burgundy and
Alsace; but in Burgundy a "Premier cru" is a top quality wine, just
below a "Grand cru".
or Vin Délimité de Qualité
, This is the second highest qualification for French wines, below
Appellation Contrôlée. It accounts for about 2% of
all French wines.
Like Appellation Contrôlée wines, VDQS wines are
geographically delimited areas, and the methods that can be
and the volumes that can be produced are controlled. Many
wines come from the Mediterranean area, Languedoc and Provence, and
there are other VDQS areas in the Loire valley. While many VDQS wines
are of medium quality, others can be really quite good, particularly
those grown in regions that are trying hard to obtain an
"appellation contrôlée" label. For example, in
2010, the "Côtes
d'Auvergne" VDQS area qualified for AOC status from the 2011 vintage
onwards. The VDQS label is scheduled to disappear in the framework of
the EU reorganisation of geographic based quality labels, and
number of former VDQS wines have now become AOP wines.
The label "Vin de pays" is being
phased out from 2009 onwards, and replaced by the European IGP (Indication
label- PGI in English). This category accounts for some 15% of French
wine production, and covers
wines that come from a designated area, the "pays", but do not have an
appellation contrôlée or VDQS label. In
short, they are the top
end of the scale for everyday drinking wines. In some cases, they are
produced from individual grape varieties, in others from a blend of
grapes grown locally. Some vineyards and cooperatives that are not in
an Appellation contrôlée area put all
their expertise and skill
into producing top quality Vins de Pays, with the result that it is now
possible to get some extremely good value wines with this or the newer
Vin de table.
Ordinary everyday table wine, also known as "vin ordinaire". In English
slang, this is "plonk".
MONEY in French wine
- What - Where - When ?
At a blind tasting of
eleven 2001 vintage Bordeaux wines in 2009, by an expert jury from the
World Wine Symposium's European Grand Jury, nine out of ten
vintages (costing between 152
€ and 1521 € a bottle) were beaten by a
humble "Bordeaux supérieur" priced at 14.90 € a bottle.......
Just one flagrant example to show that the price you pay for a bottle
of wine is not necessarily a gauge of its quality.
on the whole, there is a relation between price and quality - but there
is also plenty
of scope for getting good, or excellent, value for money.
WHAT TO BUY
Generally speaking, if you have two bottles of wine at the same price,
choose the one with the lesser-known or less-prestigious label. For
instance, in a French supermarket, 10 Euros will get you something at
the cheap end of the more famous names (for instance a poor year), but
at the top end of the less well known vineyards.
bottle of Vin de Pays costs 10 Euros, it should be really good
(otherwise there is no way they could sell it at that price) - but if
you were to find a Grand Cru Bordeaux for this price (and it can
happen), then it obviously has a problem..
given appellation contrôlée areas, go for the
smaller and therefore
lesser known estates or appellations. For example, in the
Rhône area, you will normally get better value for money with
(situated on the western banks of the river) than with its neighbouring
but much more prestigious vineyard, Chateauneuf du Pape (on the eastern
banks of the river).
With Clarets (wines from
the Bordeaux area), you can often get really good quality wines at
reasonable prices (from less than 10 euros in French supermarkets) if
you look for "cru bourgeois" labels.
remember, vintages vary considerably, so a cheap "cru bourgeois" may
indicate a poor year. The areas covered by "appellation
labels also frequently include hectares of land that produce wines of
different qualities. There are "Margaux" wines with "Premier grand cru"
status, but other Margaux wines with no more than the appellation.. The
latter will probably be of good quality, indeed they may even be
excellent, and if they are, will cost considerably less than their more
illustrious namesakes; but there is no guarantee, particularly if they
are still young.
Excellent value for money can
also be had with good vins
de pays; look out for vintage vins de pays
that are being sold for twice the price of other vins de pays, or even
a bit more. They will still be relatively cheap, but you may well find
yourself with a wine that outclasses most of the ordinary AOC wines
being sold at the same price, or even more
There are two best bets; either from the producer, or from large
Producers may offer good value for money, but this
no means always the case. They may also sell at a premium to passing
tourists, to make up for the relatively poorer prices that they get by
selling to large distributors. However, there is often the pleasure of
being able to taste the wine and choose the vintage or the variety that
one likes best.
Large supermarkets, on the other hand,
have such superior buying power that they can obtain far better prices
from the producers that the individual visitor can. And when, as often
happens, big chains run wine fairs, there are some extremely good
bargains to be had. It should be said that the large supermarket chains
(Carrefour, Casino, Auchan, Leclerc, etc) have their own professional
buyers who know a lot about wine, and whose job is to get the best
value for money and the best (or the cheapest) wines possible. Within a
wine region, supermarkets will stock a good range of local wines, as
well as a wide selection of wines from all over France, and even from
is often a lot
of snobbery in wines, both in France and in other
countries. There are those who would think it quite beneath their
dignity to respond at a dinner party to someone who comments on the
wine, by saying; "Actually, it was 4 Euros from Leclerc ! " And there
are those who insist on being able to say "I got it from my wine
merchant, or from Jules, or from the château." But
if that means
paying an inflated price for a mediocre wine, as may sometimes be the
case, who's the fool ?
Of course, the best way
of all to buy wine is perhaps to get to know an area well, and to make
the acquaintances of people who know the right people. Top
appellation contrôlée wines have to be sold off
with less prestigious
names if production exceeds the quota for the area, and naturally these
"vins déclassés" are frequently sold to those who
know, at knockdown
prices. Also, many small producers keep a reserve of their own wines,
often their best, for sale to friends and longstanding customers - so
as usual, knowing the right people can be very useful. This kind of
intimate knowledge does not feature in any wine guide.
Undoubtendy the best moments are when
chains run wine fairs or special offers. Wine fairs tend to take place
in late September / Early october, at the time of the wine harvest, or
just before Christmas. However French supermarkets and hypermarkets
always stock a wide range of French wines, so there are good buys and
bargains to be had at all times of the year.
other sparkling wines?
nothing can beat a top quality Champagne, and while there are some very
ropy sparkling wines to be found on some supermarket shelves - there is
also a broad middle ground where many sparkling wines from Champagne
have little apart from their name, the grape varieties used, and their
price to distinguish
themselves from good "mousseux" or "crémants" produced in
regions. There may be kudos to be gained by serving a genuine
Champagne - but unless it's a top quality Champagne (which does not
necessarily mean a big name), it is quite wrong to imagine
the Champagne will always be best. It will however almost
Some excellent French AOC sparkling
wines, available at a fraction of the price of equivalent quality
Champagnes, include Crémant de Bourgogne from Burgundy,
Jura, Crémant d'Alsace, and Blanquette de Limoux - the
sparkling wine which Champagne producers started to copy in the 17th
century. There are also some excellent Loire valley AOC sparkling
wines, including Vouvray and Montlouis. Most consumers will be quite
unable to tell the difference.
To be quite
frank, Champagne producers have over the years been quite masterful in
the promotion and international marketing of their product, to the
point at which today just the name Champagne on a bottle adds at least
a dozen Euros to its the market value - if not much more. It's
been an uphill battle all the way for producers of sparkling wines from
other regions to get their good quality products recognised for what
they are. And faced with the massive power of the
houses, the importance of Champagne as an export, and the nice markups
that can be made on Champagne by wholesalers, exporters and retailers,
the going is still hard for producers of non-Champagne
So it pays handsomely to be in the
and forget about chic and kudos when looking for a good French bubbly.
In 2014, 12 € will get you a rather cheap Champagne...... or a
relatively expensive Vouvray or Crémant; and while surprises
possible, in most cases there will be no comparison.