Category: Wine Education

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VDQS, the ancestor of the current French Appellation System: a leap into the past to fix the present

If you have ever paid attention to any French wine at all, you should have seen many different acronyms on their respective labels. The AOP, AOC, IGP, and VdF are probably the most common. However, they are very controversial nowadays given that many extremely talented winemakers have decided either to leave the AOC or even not to apply for it. This article aims to explore the current French wine appellation system and its flaws while taking a look at recent history to better understand what is happening today.

 

The current French wine appellation system: a quick reminder

French Appellation Quality Pyramid

First things first, let’s take a look at today’s most used acronyms and what reality they cover. Schematically speaking, we often represent the French (and European) appellation system as a pyramid where the least demanding constraints seat at the bottom with the VdF (Vins de France = Wines from France), then gradually increase in demandingness through the IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée = PGI = Protected Geographical Indication) to end up with the hardest appellation to obtain, the AOP (Appelation d’Origine Protégée = PDO = Protected Denomination of Origin). Well, that is theoretically true, but theoretically only!

PDO, is it self-sufficient?

Super Tuscan, not showing any IGT on label, IGT Toscana

That is where things are starting to get more complex, as you may well find extremely high quality wines (sometimes way better than AOP ones) in the PGI (=IGP) category. This is true not only in France, where stunning biodynamic wines by Alexandre Bain do not bear the AOC Pouilly-Fumé designation, but also in Italy, where super-tuscans like Tignanello bear the PGI designation. However, the reasons behind this state of fact are different from one to the other.

sell their Sassicaia as a DOC while Antinori, for example, has left its Tignanello as an IGT

For the super-tuscans like Tignanello it is probably more due to the fact that at the time when Tuscans started producing wines from a blend of international grapes like Cabernet-Sauvignon, there was no existing appellation that allowed their use at that time. Then, by default, these wines ended up in the PGI category where rules regarding grapes, winemaking techniques, traditions (etc.) were less stringent. Since then, things have evolved and a new DOC (Denominazione di Origina Controllata = PDO) in Tuscany has been created to cover this gap, the DOC Bolgheri. Consequently, some producers, like Tenuta San Guido, have decided to sell their Sassicaia as a DOC while Antinori, for example, has left its Tignanello as an IGT. That is a prime example of the fact that considering PGI as an inferior wine category is only true on paper. To make things even more complex, the advocates of appellation systems should wonder why Bolgheri is only a DOC and not a DOCG although Super-Tuscans have reached international recognition for decades. (It is important to remember that PDO in Italy is sub-divided into DOC and DOCG, with DOCG representing the most demanding process). But this point is not the main subject of this article, so let’s not get lost in this other controversy.

wine syndicate in charge of managing the appellation, may league against a winemaker despite the quality of his final product

For French wines like the ones made by Alexandre Bain, the reasons why he has not been able to sell their production under the prestigious Pouilly-Fumé appellation are very different. I personally find (and I am not the only one) that Alexandre Bain’s biodynamic white wines beat hands down most of the labeled Pouilly-Fumé on the market in terms of quality. This issue between the producer and the local appellation syndicate has been the subject of many fierce attacks and counterattacks, so let’s not get into too much detail. Let’s just summarize this by saying that it could be considered as an example where some powerful local producers, part of the wine syndicate in charge of managing the appellation, may league against a winemaker despite the quality of his final product. Unfortunately, similar situations have happened in many other appellations and countries (such as Spain and Italy). Aside from the dispute between heavy pesticide users (more focused on mass production and profit-seeking) and passionate biodynamic/organic winemakers (focusing on health and safety for consumers); too many times, blind tasting committees are judged partial and favor the status quo rather than encouraging new paths of quality improvement.

AOC vs. AOP: What is the difference?

I have been asked this question many times, especially by foreigners: “I see AOC or AOP on labels and French people usually call any wine labelled AOP an AOC. I am lost. What is the difference?”. I totally understand that it can be very confusing and that clarification is needed. Simply put, the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée) is the equivalent of the PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) at a harmonized European level. The AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controllée) can be seen as the inspiration that gave birth to the AOP label. It was a French appellation system designed to distinguish the highest level of quality, mainly for food specialties and wines.

INAO Official Logo

The first wine AOC was created in July 1935 by the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origines) under the proposition of a French Senator. Today, all AOCs in France (wine and non-wine) generate nearly 22.94 billion euros in annual revenue, with alcohol, wine, and spirits accounting for 20.6 billion (source INAO, 2020). After their inception, the different AOCs have rapidly been adopted by the French. They quickly covered many parts of the French gastronomy legacy, such as Noix de Grenoble (1938), Champagne, Poulet de Bresse (1957), Camembert, Roquefort… It really became a symbol of French identity, to such a point that products that are labeled AOP are still called AOC, and that producers keep labelling their products with the AOC mention (instead of AOP).

AOC: Where does it come from?

o The first Anti-Fraud Wine law

The creation of the AOC label was a legal answer to fraud and counterfeits that had been waiting for a very long time. Indeed, after the phylloxera crisis in the late 19th century, France became a Far-West in terms of winemaking in order to supply the national demand for wines. Some merchants imported wines from nearly anywhere to blend them, and they sold the same dubious wine under many different labels. To an extreme, it led unscrupulous merchants to transform regular water into wines (sometimes directly on boats) by adding coloring agents and low-quality distilled alcohol (even replacing ethanol with methanol, which made consumers blind).

1907, The Winegrower Uprising in Montpellier, Public Domain Image

Merchants quickly understood that these new ways of making wine were far more profitable than traditional wines. As a result, many wine makers and grape growers shifted their production toward high yields and low-quality wines in order to survive (traditional wines became too expansive compared to the “fake” ones). The situation kept deteriorating until 1907, when the vinegrowers from the Languedoc (South of France, today Occitanie) could not take it anymore, and manifested for months in key cities. This is sometimes referred to as “The Winegrower Uprising” and culminated in the Montpellier demonstration where between 600 000 and 800 000 manifestants (1 000 000 inhabitants in the Languedoc at that time) invaded the streets led by Marcelin Albert. As a direct consequence of this spreading uprising, the French government decided to pass the Anti-Fraud Wine law.

The two main components of this law were:

  • First, “to prevent the watering of wines and the abuse of sugar by a surtax on sugar and the obligation of traders to declare sales of sugar higher than 25 kilograms (55 lb)”; which targeted the practice of making extremely diluted wines that could be chaptalized (adding external sugar and starting fermentation) to increase tremendously the production level
  • Second, “No drink may be owned or transported for sale or sold under the name of wine unless it comes exclusively from the alcoholic fermentation of fresh grapes or grape juice”, which targeted the practice of mixing alcohol, coloring agents, and water to produce artificial wines.

o From the Anti-Fraud Wine law to the AOC

Save the wine for our Soldiers, Public Domain Image

After the Anti-Fraud Wine Act was passed, the Fraud and Repression Service was created. Unfortunately, in 1914, World War I began, and the French military authorities needed extreme amounts of wine for the soldiers to keep fighting despite the absolute carnage. The demand was so huge that there was barely enough wine and alcohol for widows and heavily wounded soldiers to lick their wounds.

Bien Tassé, Drawing, 1917, Public Domain Image

After 1918, the over-consumption of alcohol by soldiers during the war led the remaining part of this generation to be destroyed by alcoholism. This rampant alcoholism, together with the “Années Folles” (the Roaring Twenties), where people just wanted to live and party, did not help to improve the quality of production as the emphasis was put on providing enough alcohol to meet the demand. It was only in 1936 that the INAO (created in 1935) issued its first appellations.

French Students Alcoholism Prevention poster,
After 1918, Editions Armand CollinPublic Domain Image

o The VdP, AOS, VDQS, and AOC: a brief history

the risk was for the AOC to be seen as too common and easy to obtain

Given the success of the first wine AOCs (both in terms of reputation and sales), many other wine-producing regions wanted to have their own AOC. Then, the authorities faced a challenge given that the AOC was supposed to reward excellence and quality; the risk was for the AOC to be seen as too common and easy to obtain (which would have destroyed its value). The VdP (Vin de Pays = County Wines) was created quickly for “table wines” and “cooking wines”, the category for everyday and regular wines with an obligation to be made from grapes and locally. Then, they rapidly established a hierarchy with the creation of the AOS (Appellation d’Origine Simple = Basic Origin Appellation) and the VDQS (Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure). VDQS was way harder to obtain than the AOS. VDQS could be seen as an equivalent of the DOC in Italy, with just slightly less stringent rules than the AOC (DOCG in Italy to keep up with the comparison).

Has PGI become the new AOS?

some PGIs now give their label to wines made from Chardonnay when, traditionally, it has never been grown in the region

The AOS category disappeared in 1973 in France because most of its members improved their quality enough to switch to the VDQS category. Nonetheless, there is a raging debate because today’s PGIs across Europe are becoming, every year, more and more permissive in terms of grapes, yields, winemaking techniques, etc. It is becoming less and less homogeneous in France and in Europe. Some PGIs are quite restrictive, while others tend to accept almost everything. It has reached a point where some producers and customers are starting to question the true value of labelling their wines as PGIs. And the ‘new world’ trend consisting of labelling bottles by grape names does not help. Just to stick to this trend, some PGIs now give their label to wines made from Chardonnay when, traditionally, it has never been grown in the region.

PGI: When the basics are missing?

made to recognize local, trustworthy, and consistent uses”

Let’s go back to our very interesting French wine appellation system prior to its integration into a harmonized European appellation system. At that time, the distinction between AOS, IGP, and AOC had the same common ground to distinguish them from the VdP (Vin de Pays). According to French law, they were made to recognize “local, trustworthy, and consistent uses” (“usages locaux, loyaux et constants”) to make a given certified final quality product within a certain tradition. Therefore, we can wonder if the PGIs are not moving too fast in accepting certain new grapes and new practices. What is the incentive for producers like Alexandre Bain to label their wines as PGIs? Would it be fair to label it with other PGI producers (for example, making Chardonnay or other grapes that we have never seen in the region) although it has all the characteristics of the Pouilly Fumé from Sauvignon Blanc?

VDQS: The missing category in today’s European and French winemaking?

VDQS Wine Label, Public Domain Image

The VDQS category was created in 1949 and imposed strict rules regarding winemaking techniques, grapes used, terroir, alcohol level, yields, vine training systems, and vinification. It even required a detailed wine analysis (laboratory) and blind tastings by independent experts. As a result, the VDQS category did not require much time to be adopted by the French customers and gain excellent quality recognition. It really served as a launching pad for many regions before becoming an independent AOC or as an aspiration for the AOS. Sure, the brand power of some super-Tuscans is powerful enough to be self-sufficient. However, some talented but less recognized winemakers are struggling to gain recognition and establish themselves. Wouldn’t it be fair for them to create an in-between category which will recognize distinguishable quality without having to suffer from the flaws of heterogeneous and “one size fits all” PGIs?

 

Oray


Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

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I did not receive any gifts or free samples that could be related to this article

Wine 101: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Wine

Do you feel like wine is a very interesting world but you just do not understand anything at all? Do you feel that it is probably too complex for you? Do you feel like a complete stranger when wine connoisseurs tell you about all those fancy aromas (blueberry, blackcurrant, leather, tar…) they find in a wine glass. How is it possible to find tar aromas in wine? Is it a good thing? Is it even drinkable? Do you feel like most Champagne are too acidic? Do you feel like most of the red wines are too tannic, too astringent…

Well, the good news is that you should not worry; everyone has been there one day, including me. You are just at the very beginning of your wine journey. To jumpstart and set a foot in the world of wine, you just need a clear and basic structure. Through this educational article, I would like to provide you with a clear and simple three-step foundation to start understanding wine. Why 3 steps? Because, as in the lyrics of the Jackson 5 song, wine is “as easy as 1-2-3, as easy as A-B-C, as easy as Do-Ré-Mi”.

 

What is it about wine? Why is it so special? The “A-B-C” of Wine

  • “A”.

“many available water sources could have made them sick for days”

Wine is a man-made product, without man, there is no wine. At their natural state, in the wild world, vines are made to climb up on trees and other vegetation in order to attain the top of the canopy. It allows it to get access to the sun and start producing fruits aiming at attracting birds and other animals that will eat its grapes to disseminate its seeds. That is really far away from the liquid you find in your bottle of wine. Probably at the very beginning men have learned to domesticate this vegetative state solely in order to grow some eatable fruits. Keeping in mind that thousands of years ago there was no running water and many available water sources could have made them sick for days, they probably quickly tried to find a reliable solution to drink a sanitized beverage. Then, grapes were turned into wine where alcohol played this sanitizing role. The first traces of wine making are considered to date back to around 4000 years B.C. That makes it a very old beverage! As in everything, men tried to perfect their skills at making it to improve its quality, to enjoy drinking it, and eventually to sell it. So wine is closely linked to our origins, civilization, history, and played a central role in our development.

  • “B”.

“wine offers two characteristics that other alcoholic beverages do not”

That being said, humans also made alcoholic beverages from other fruits (apples…), crafted beers very early and learned how to make spirits later on. All of them addressing the same sanitization need. So why is wine so special? Despite its close link to religions, especially to Christianity, wine offers two characteristics that other alcoholic beverages do not. First, it gives a wider spectrum of aromas and flavors (without needing other additives) than other beverages. Second, it has the unique ability to evolve over time and gain more complexity. Beers, due to their lower degree of alcohol need to be stored at cooler temperatures and consequently have little possibility to evolve over time. Spirits on the other end have way higher alcohol titration (not very handy if you are looking for an every day drinkable solution) which implies that it takes more time to evolve (10, 20, 30 years being the norm) than wines as their alcohol level acts as an aroma preserver. Conversely, some wines stored in glass bottles can start to show aroma evolution after 2 or 3 years but for the most part need 5 to 8 years to improve in terms of aroma complexity (10 to 15 years for some prestigious and very tannic wines).

  • “C”.

“the world of wine gives you unique access to human history”

Let’s summarize what we have learned so far: a wider array of natural aromas in the finished juice, an aroma complexity that improves faster, and a close tie to mankind’s history, civilization-building, and commerce. What else? We forgot to mention that each civilization made distinctive wines due to the different genetical profiles of their local grapes, local climates, local techniques, and so on. As such, it created a vast complexity of winemaking techniques and final results that both shaped and were shaped by local food production specialties (and food-beverage pairings). So, let’s wrap this up by saying that the world of wine gives you unique access to human history, food specialties, local habits, and much more.

 

What if I have no palate at all and I am just not able to distinguish anything in wine? The “1-2-3” of Wine

“All those fancy wine tasting notes, I just can’t recognize any of them in a wine, so I just drink it,” I’ve heard many times.If this sentence suits you, do not worry, you are not alone; everyone started there. For years, when I tasted wines, I had only one cursor: tannins. When the wines were too tannic, I found them unpleasant and harsh; when they had little tannin, I found them drinkable.

The good news is, it is very easily fixable. You just need a clear and basic structure to approach wine and start deciphering it. So below is a simple and basic three-step process to help you improve tremendously your ability to ‘read’ wine.

  • “1”.

“just incline slightly your glass of wine in front of a white surface and take a look at your wine starting from the external ring to the center or vice-versa”

Start with what you see. Is it a red, white or rosé? What is the depth of its color (opacity)? Is the color monotonous or does it show some complexity? Is it too bright? Too shallow? Does it have some hues? Is it hazy? You can learn a lot just by looking at the color, reflections… inside your wine glass. In fact, for centuries, wine merchants based their purchase orders mainly on the color of the fresh pressed juice. It still gives you a good clue on the quality to expect once you will drink it (except for the haziness criteria as a growing number of wines are unfiltered nowadays to improve their complexity so, in that case, it does not mean the presence of spoilage bacteria anymore). To make it easier for your eyes to distinguish the various colors and complexity, just incline slightly your glass of wine in front of a white surface and take a look at your wine starting from the external ring to the center or vice-versa.

  • “2”.

“Never rush, smell it a couple of times, then try to distinguish any perfume that comes out of it”

The most important part: the nose. In wine, everything starts with your nose. The more you smell before you drink your glass of wine, the more you will understand wine. The very basic mistake is for people to rush into drinking it. Never rush, smell it a couple of times, then try to distinguish any perfume that comes out of it (that is called the “first nose”). Then, swirl the wine in your glass and smell it again (that is called the “second nose”). You will see that some aromas and perfumes become more evident with your “second nose” (even when the temperature of service is horrific). This is the magic key! If you do not use your nose, you will not understand wine.

  • “3”.

“Again, do not rush into swallowing your wine right away.”

The underrated phase: the mouth. Again, do not rush into swallowing your wine right away. Leave it in your mouth for a few seconds and try to decipher the impression it gives you (warm, acidic, sugary…). Some aromas and perfumes will slowly come to your mouth. Then swallow it and see if the aromas are long-lasting (a good sign of quality) or vanish quickly. Then compare all these sensations with some serious and independent wine tasting notes you can find about the bottle you selected.

 

Everything that you are doing wrong: the “Do-Ré-Mi” of Wine

Your wine ability will make a tremendous leap after the crucial 1-2-3 steps above. But, below are some things you should really pay attention to while tasting wine, as they can really alter your experience.

  • “Do”.

“Buying the first bottle at your supermarket is probably the surest way to make the wrong choice”

Try not to pick the first wine bottle that you find at your local supermarket just because you find the label fancy, especially for your first few bottles. Just go to your local specialized wine shop and talk to one of the employees. Give your price constraints (they all have selected entry price bottles) and some of the context; they will help orient your choice. Make him speak and ask him for several suggestions, then make your choice.

Buying the first bottle at your supermarket is probably the surest way to make the wrong choice. Keep in mind that supermarkets, especially in the old world (Europe…), mainly sell wines for cooking purposes (sauces…).

  • “Ré”.

The three factors that can kill your wine are: temperature of service, wine glass, and bottle ageing.

Temperature: Too cold a bottle of red wine is the surest way to perceive no aromas. Conversely, too warm a bottle of white wine is the surest way to only feel the alcohol in your wine and destroy its perfume. By rule of thumb, for whites and rosés, a temperature of service between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius should be fine; for reds, try to serve them between 14 and 18 degrees.

“just because it is made of crystal, it does not make it any better if the shape is similar to the random plastic cup”

Wine glass: drinking wine inside a plastic cup is the worst way to discover the wine world. And just because it is made of crystal, it does not make it any better if the shape is similar to the random plastic cup. As mentioned in Step 2 above, everything starts with the nose, so you need a wine glass that will help your nose do its job. Wine glasses are way more complex technical instruments than you can imagine when it comes to tasting wine. They come in various shapes and forms, and the best glasses are not linked to their prices or materials but to their ability to reveal aromas of certain grapes (called Grape-specific glasses). That is the reason why they have this characteristic “tulip” shape. So that, when you smell it atop your glass, it helps concentrate perfumes from the wine up to your nose.

“This process makes all the charm of powerful red wines”

Bottle aging: Pay attention to the vintage year on the label. If you select a powerful red (Bordeaux or other oak-aged wines) that has been bottled very recently, it is the surest way to have very unpleasant, harsh tannins that will disappoint you. For powerful reds, just prefer a 5-to 8-year-old vintage in order for the tannins to have started polymerizing and softening. This process makes all the charm of powerful red wines as they bring more complexity in aromas (bringing what we call “tertiary aromas” such as leather, tar, vanilla, tobacco, etc., compared to “primary fruity aromas”).

  • “Mi”.

“Pay special attention to any of the following examples, especially when made just before drinking wine”

Be careful of the environment and context in which you taste wine. Often, people think about paying special attention to what food they will pair their wine with. This is a very good reflex as some foods can destroy your wine (i.e., a sweet dessert with a young fruity red wine). And vice versa, some wines can destroy your food (i.e., a powerful red with delicate fish). However, it is not enough. Pay special attention to any of the following examples, especially when made just before drinking wine: Brushing your teeth (toothpastes will leave molecules that will hinder your aroma perception); smoking cigarettes; wearing strong perfume; consuming acidic, spicy, bitter, or astringent foods…

You need a nose and palate as neutral as possible, so take some time to eat some neutral food (soft bread…) and drink water prior any wine tasting. It will help you “to reset” your palate.

Oray


Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!

None of this content has been sponsored

I did not receive any gifts or free samples that could be related to this article

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