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.
There's a saying amongst wine makers. Good wine is made in the vineyard. They are referring to the health of the vineyard, the vines and the grapes. If you take great care of them, keep yields low and disease at bay and carefully harvest ripe healthy grapes. And providing you don’t do anything drastically wrong during the fermentation process, there is every chance you will make good wine.
What is terroir? It’s a little word with a big meaning. It sums up all the various factors the vine experiences in the environment where it is growing and in turn this affects the style of the wine. Wine without the influence of terroir will just be deliciously fruity whereas terroir driven wines will express a sense of the place where they come from. The two most influential factors of terroir are the climate and the soil. Also included is the altitude the vines are grown at. Is it flat or sloping land? If there is a slope which way is it facing? Does the soil drain freely? Does the soil trap heat? Is there water nearby and if so is it a large body of water such as a lake or the sea or is it a trickling stream or a great river. What is the microclimate in that place? What else is growing in the area? All of these factors affect the growing conditions for the vine and will shape the characteristics of the wine. However there is one further, highly important element of terroir. Man. How is the land being farmed? Has the terroir been matched to particular grape varieties? How have the vines been pruned and trained? What yield is being achieved? Is the land being farmed sustainably and in deference to terroir or highly commercially using pesticides and herbicides?