Buy Fine French Wines

Written by Blaire Chandler-Wilcox
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The best way to begin one's understanding of French wines is to get a grasp of the word "terroir." Terroir, strictly speaking, has no real English equivalent. Terroir takes into account the climate, growing conditions, topography, and the very components of the soil in which the grapes are grown. For lack of a straight translation, it might be easiest to say that "terroir" refers to "the taste of the earth." This is why a Pinot Noir grape grown in Burgundy will have a different character than a Pinot Noir grape grown in Italy, California, or even another part of France.

Because the terroir is different between regions, resulting in different grape characteristics, a legislative body called the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (referred to as the AOC) came into existence. The AOC dictates that because certain grapes grow best in certain environments, that vineyards which want to be recognized for quality may only grow the grapes which are proven to thrive in their particular region. These approved regions are called "appellations."

Examples of Appellations and Wine Standards

Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Languedoc are all examples of appellations. Each of these has very strict grape planting regulations. For instance, only Chardonnay grapes may be planted in the Burgundy (or Bourgogne) region for white wines. Therefore, it's a given that all White Burgundies are made from Chardonnay grapes. Within the appellation of Burgundy, there is the smaller sub-appellation of Chablis. Because Chablis is located within the AOC of Burgundy, the white grape used for that particular wine is also the Chardonnay grape. As the standards of the AOC are richly ingrained in European wine culture, and because most people in Europe are familiar with the standards for each appellation, it is considered redundant to list the grape varieties on the labels. This is why you'll never find a bottle of White Burgundy (to use the previous example) which claims on the label, "made with Chardonnay grapes."

The AOC is the highest, but not the only, classification for French wines. Slightly below the quality level of AOC is the VDQS (Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure), a temporary designation for an experimental wine region that is usually eventually approved for AOC status. "Vin de Pays" is the next lowest status level, and means "country wines." Country wines are made by smaller producers that are either a) unable to comply with strict AOC regulations, or b) are experimenting with grape varieties. Because they are not regulated as strictly, and because they don't neccesarily follow the regional grape laws, Vin de Pays will often contain the specific grape combinations on the label. The lowest standard of French wines is referred to as "table wine." However, as many know, even ordinary table wine from France has ample charm, if chosen wisely to accompany whatever foods one is serving it with.

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