For the average person I think one of the most confusing things about French wine is the difference between AOC & Vins du Pays. In my experience most people think AOC means top quality and Vins du Pays lower quality. This is not necessarily the case and I think it helps to understand why we have both categories. So we need a little history.
The story begins in the late 1800’s during the devastation of the French vineyards by Phylloxera. During this period production of French wines was considerably reduced and this led to the widespread fraudulent sales of “famed” wines and adulteration of standard wine with cheaper wine. In an attempt to regulate the industry the French Assembly took the decision to delimit geographical areas and to specify where particular wines must be produced. However, it quickly became apparent that France’s famous wines depended on more than where they were grown and this first attempt to regulate French wines failed.
In 1923 Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer, Baron Le Roy, devised a quality control system that included specified grape varieties, pruning methods, vine-training, minimum alcohol strength as well as delimiting the geographical area where the wine was produced.
As a direct result of this, in 1935 a government agency, called the INAO was established and was tasked with creating the appellation d’origine contrôlée system.
Rules for each AOC were drawn up with the aim of preserving the traditional and famous wines of France. They were under attack from a number of directions including fraudulent and false misrepresentation. The replanting after Phylloxera had raised another danger and had the AOC not been in place there would have been nothing to stop people planting whatever grape variety they wanted on any soils, and France might have lost some of its ancient and historical wines for ever.
The AOC laws fundamentally following the Châteauneuf prototype and the concept was enthusiastically adopted by the fine wine producers. They entered into the system to protect their name and reputation and to stamp out fraudulent wine that was effectively cheapening their “fine” wines.
So the AOC protected the wines but also the notion of terroir and means that the resulting product cannot be reproduced outside its territory. When you buy an AOC wine it is regulated in terms of where it grew and the grape varieties used to make it. It must also have ‘tipicity’, a French word meaning the wine tastes and looks as you would expect it to. For instance, if you buy an AOC Minervois it should taste of a Minervois and not a Bordeaux, Corbières or something else.
The AOC has achieved what it set out to do. It is a protectionist system and therefore must disallow innovation and creativity. It guarantees the wine’s provenance and that it conforms to the AOC rules but it does not guarantee quality. Yes, it is a Minervois for instance, but not necessarily a good one.
In the 1980’s the New World, in particular California and Australia began to market their wines into Europe and France began to lose market share. There were many reasons for this but one of the major factors was that New World producers did not name the wine after the terroir but instead after the grape variety. People found it a lot easier to buy wine this way not realising that it is climate + grape variety that produces a wine style and not grape variety alone. Clever marketing!
The New World initially chose a very limited number of grape varietals and these have become known as ‘International Varieties’ and are; Syrah/Shiraz (same thing), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. Just 7 grape varieties out of over 1,000 to choose from. This approach simplified everything and also did a lot of good for the industry of wine making because more and more people began to enjoy wine. People from countries where wine drinking had not been part of the culture were now regularly enjoying a glass of wine. People who had previously been cider or beer drinkers began to drink wine and no longer did you order your glass of choice by terroir, it was all done by grape variety and more often than not the choice was one of the 7 International Varieties.
In the 1980’s Languedoc was still trying to shrug off its reputation for quantity over quality and the government was looking at ways to improve this situation. The Vins du Pays category was created in 1983 and Languedoc embraced it in 1988. The aim was to improve wine quality but VdP was also seen as a weapon with which to fight for market share against the New World wines. Certainly the VdP category has criteria wine makers must adhere to, but it is more flexible than the AOC criteria and importantly it allowed the use of the 7 International grape varieties. So initially, planting and production was single varietal wine using the International varietals people had become familiar with. The wine was cheaper to produce in comparison to other parts of France, mainly due to the cost of land and being sold at competitive prices.
As the years went by things began to change. Whereas AOC was seen as protectionist and stilted innovation, the VdP category allowed people to experiment. More and more wine makers embraced the VdP category and used it to label some of their finest wines. Often because their wines broke the AOC rules in some way, such as grape variety or terroir. The Vins du Pays designation attracted many new wine makers to Languedoc, many from Australia and New Zealand resulting in the region being dubbed the New World of France.
The European Union adopted the AOC model and adapted it for use in all European wine producing countries. They placed it into a 3-tiered pyramid supposed to order the wine in terms of quality: the bottom tier is for table wine, the second tier for VdP and the top tier for AOC.
In reality an AOC designation on the label merely guarantees the origin of the wine and not the quality. VdP can mean anything from cheap and cheerful quaffing wine to some of the finest wine this region has to offer.
In 2009 the EU standardised the names of the categories of wine across each EU country. The 3-tiered pyramid remained but the category names were changed. For France this has resulted in:
Table wine has become Vins Sans IG – Wine without Geographical Indication which means it can come from anywhere in France. With the change Vin du table has been renamed Vin de France.
Vins du Pays has become IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) – Protected Geographical Indication means the label must state where in France the wine was grown. This can be regional, departmental or zonal.
AOC is now known as AOP (Appellation d’origine Protégée) – so instead of being controlled it is now protected. The use of AOC is still allowed and some parts of France have decided to stick with it but Languedoc-Roussillon has moved to the new labelling.
Cru is a French term that usually refers to a vineyard or vineyard area that is officially recognised as being superior. In Languedoc-Roussillon the word ‘Cru’ has no legal definition but it does imply status and is used to describe a hierarchy within a given terroir. In Languedoc there are currently 4 Cru; La Livinière in the Minervois, Corbières-Boutenac and two in Saint Chinian; Roquebrun and Berlou. In Roussillon there are 5 Cru; Les Aspres, Caramany, Lesquerde, Latour de France and Tautavel