Monday, January 27, 2020

AOP, IGP and Vin de France. The Labels on French Wines.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Vin de France

How the labels have changed.

AOC has become AOP
                                 QVDS has disappeared.                                        
Vins de Pays has mostly become IGPs.
Vins de Table has become Vins de France.  
Wines bottled before 2012 may keep their old labels.

AOP  has replaced the AOC on the label.


AOP in French stands for Appellation d'Origine Protégé; in the UK and Ireland, that same label with the same standards is the PDO, the Protected Designation of Origin. For French wines, AOP will indicate specific grapes or blends made in 
distinct growing areas called appellations. There are over 300 distinct appellations. 
What does the AOP mean for the consumer?
The wines that previously carried the AOC label were grandfathered in and so all have become AOP wines. For the consumer who bought a specific vintage AOC wine from a particular producer before now buys the same wine with an AOP label. He or she will find that nothing in the production system has changed.

The AOP labels, like the AOC label before, cover the grapes that may be used, the vineyards that grapes may come from, the way the grapes are grown, the way the wines are blended, and the method used.  Unfortunately, no retesting was carried out when the labels were changed. Nevertheless, the year of vintage continues to make a significant difference to a wine's taste. Three years ago the wine may have been excellent, next year who knows? It would be best if you had an up-to-date wine book or a wine expert when ordering wine, and the excellent pocket wine book you buy before you travel you'll find just as useful when used at home.  

Wine in carafe and glass.

The same grape will make wines that have very different tastes.

As an example here are three famous Burgundy wines that use the Chardonnay grape and have very different tastes:

Côte de Beaune includes the wines from Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and  Corton-Charlemagne. 

Chablis comes from the four distinct Appellations around the town      of Chablis and is associated with the original grading of the vineyards.

The Mâconnais  wine region produces the famous Pouilly-Fuissé and more.
In the French world of food and wine grading, today the AOP is the big one. Even for the locals, an AOP is the most impressive of the different grades printed on the labels of French foods and wines. The fact that a wine’s rating may have been handed out over 80 years ago and not checked since unfortunately worries very few.


What can you tell from an AOC or AOP wine label?

An AOP wine may not show the AOP icon on the label, but all AOP wines must show their Appellation.  Only AOP wines have wine-growing areas called Appellations. 

A wine may have two or three labels on the bottle and another on the cork.. A wine’s vintage may be on a label on the bottle’s neck and lower down, maybe one or two more labels with the wine producer's name, its Appellation, the place where the wine was bottled, along with the alcohol content and the bottle's volume. Finally, usually at the end of the label, comes the name of the vintner or wholesaler followed by an address.


Where the wine was bottled will be shown on the labels.

Bottling the wine within the winery is considered a sign of quality. However, not all small wineries can afford or produce enough wine to own their private bottling plant, but the industry has a solution for that. In France, I have seen mobile bottling plants being driven into a winery's property. Over one to two days, that year's vintage is bottled and labeled, and then the plant will move on.  Then, like the bigger winery a mile (1.6km) away, the label will read Mis en bouteille au Domaine or Chateau, etc., bottled in the winery.

A mobile bottling plant on the back of a trailer.


How many French wines bear an AOP Label?

There are over four-hundred and fifty different French wines entitled to an AOP label, and in Bordeaux, for example, there are more than 6,000 chateaux (wineries), and many produce two or more different wines. With numbers like these, how likely are you to know a particular wine, winery, and the best years? Then more to the point, how do you know which wines suit a particular dish? A small wine list in a small but good restaurant may offer 30 or even more different wines. That restaurant will have chosen its 30 wines from among France’s tens of thousands of wineries. Even for the knowledgeable owner of a French restaurant and his or her very learned sommelier and chef, making up a wine list is not easy.

Have the wines changed in the last 100 years?

Yes, of course, they have. Some have changed the grapes include in a particular blend, and nearly all have made changes in their vineyards growing practices. In a restaurant with a sommelier, a wine steward, you can ask and discuss the wines in your budget.   The sommelier will have studied wines for many years and, apart from selling wine, tastes the wines, sees to their storage and careful aging, and then builds a wine list to cover a wide range of tastes and price levels. A wine that was graded in 1935 or before will not be the same today.   The sommelier is expected to know all the wines on his or her wine-list and how they taste and guide you. Caveat emptor, the owner, will often be pushing  the sommelier to sell particular wines, so ask for options.
Since 1935 when the original AOC grades became law, the way the soil is treated and the way the grapes are treated and the way the wines are aged has become a science.  For the consumer, those changes are not easily understood; a wine that received its AOC rating in 1935 may then have been just good to make a particular “cru.” The same wine from its 2015 vintage may now be superb or possibly disastrous; however, the consumer will not know that from the label. Equally, an individual winery may be making a terrible wine with a great name, but it will not have had its AOC or AOP rating removed if it kept precisely to the rules.  Most consumers will be unlikely to know about its terrible quality.   When you do go to France, take an up to date pocket wine book with you, an encyclopedia is not required!

What you need to know about AOC or AOP wines.
Champagne as an introductory example.

There are some 100 Champagne houses, but most of us will only recognize the names of ten while the locals may have heard of thirty; the rest will have their own unique and determined aficionados, but they will have a limited output. A Champagne House is a wine producer and blender who sells Champagne under its own name. Most houses buy in the bulk of the grapes used in their brew from independent growers. After the brand name, Champagne Houses come the wholesalers, called négociant distributors, who buy and sell bottled Champagne bought from co-operative blenders and bottlers and have them labeled and sold under their own names. These wholesalers will be behind your local supermarket’s label. The small wholesalers will sell 100 bottles with your own name. Caveat Emptor the freight may cost you more than the bottles. Knowing a little about these Champagne can help make a better choice and save a great deal of money.
Krug Champagne

Bordeaux wines as a more puzzling example:

Bordeaux wines require even more knowledge as there are so many variations. Bordeaux produces 57 different AOP appellations; that's 57 distinct wine-producing areas, all with different names including St. Estephe, Pauillac, Margaux, St. Emilion, and Medoc and then on to the other 53 remembering that each of the 57 has different tastes and gradings.
Following on, you need to learn about the more than 9,000  different wineries! Finally, to confuse us even more among the wines are five crus (grades) for the older red wines that were allocated in 1855 and three crus for other reds. To that, there are also three crus for Bordeaux white wines. So, you do need that wine book or a wine expert to hold your hand since, with two exceptions, these wines have never had their grades (crus) checked or changed in over 150 years! 
Luckilly, restaurant wine-lists of Bordeaux wines are not divided into 57 different sections. Most restaurants that offer several Bordeaux wines divide Bordeaux into just seven affiliated groups. No restaurant could offer every good Bordeaux wines by name, including the crus and the best wines of the last twenty-five years; that would cost tens of millions. Apart from Bordeaux wines, France has nearly 400 other non-Bordeaux AOP wines competing for space on the wine list and tens of thousands of wineries. None of this makes the Bordeaux wineries happy; their 9,000 plus wineries will all be fighting to get their name on a wine-list when there may only be space for 10.
From the examples of Champagne and Bordeaux above, you will quickly learn, as I did, that choosing a wine, despite the new AOP label, is not easy. The true connoisseur requires a lifetime of learning and deep pockets. I have neither the time nor the bank balance, so use your "up-to-date" book on French wines when considering a Bordeaux.

A 1964 Bordeaux wine label.

The English language website for all Bordeaux wines

French wines include the greatest wines in the world, but the change from  AOC to AOP did not make the life of the consumer any easier. That being said, a well-educated sommelier who knows the diner’s budget can make all the difference. The sommelier can guide the diner away from a famous and expensive wine that comes from a bad year and offer a good wine from a good year from a lesser-known producer at one-quarter of the price.


The label that is no longer used.

VQDS wines may still be on some wine lists. The logo stands for Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure. These were the wines that were considered candidates for upgrading to an AOC. With the arrival of the AOP, the wines that carried that VDQS label was either upgraded to the full AOP status or given the lower IGP status. The last years with wines with VQDS on their label were the 2015 vintage.


The IGP logo has replaced the Vin de Pays label.
IGP means Indication Géographique Protégée, in English, that's the PGI, the Protected Geographical Indication.

The Vins de Pays label for wines preceded the Pan-European IGP.for fifty years. These were selected wines from a particular region, and the IGP continues that tradition. However, like the AOC (now AOP) wines, all the Vins de Pays were grandfathered into the new IGP label. Whatever you enjoyed and relished as a Vin de Pays may continue to be appreciated and valued as an IGP. (In the UK there are wines and liquors with IGP status including over 130 scotch whisky distilleries). IGP means Indication Géographique Protégée, in English that's the PGI, the Protected Geographical Indication, 
The English PGI label.

IGP wines may show the grapes used and will always show the area of France where the wine was made. When a visitor to France sees an IGP wine made with one of the famous grapes that are often seen on the bottles of New World wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Chardonnay, etc. that visitor has a good idea of the taste. When in France compare a local IGP wine made with a grape that you know from home, the taste will be different and usually better. As an example, when you buy a Chardonnay IGP Pays d'Oc, you will see the name of the producer, the place where the grapes were grown and the wine produced, and the year the grapes were picked. You can order that Chardonnay wine again and again. Pay's d'Oc wines are from France's southern Languedoc-Roussillon that is now part of the new super region of Occitanie.
The label of a Chardonnay Vin de Pays d'Oc
Now it has been replaced by a Chardonnay IGP

IGP wines are also allowed to add a subtle amount of pure water made with boiled oak chips to aging wines; that provide more of that natural oak taste! But do not be surprised about the use of oak chips; those were always part of the wines make-up. Knowing how the wines are made does not change their taste. CognacArmagnac, and Calvados also permit the use of oak chips just as Champagne and other wines have their permitted different but accepted additions. 

Overproduction in an IGP vineyard

If an IGP producer's vineyard produces too many grapes per vine, that will lower the quality of the wine, and so that is not permitted and will push that year's wine into the Vin de France category. IGP regulations also include taste tests, but I know little about this, and I have never seen the results of a taste test, nor heard anything about the people who do the tasting.

IGP wines on the top restaurant wine lists.

Over the last few years, some excellent IGP wines have joined the wine lists of some of France's top restaurants, including those with Michelin stars. The sommeliers, the trained wine-stewards, along with the chef, will have tasted the IGP wines that are offered. Then a few of the best will make it to the restaurant's wine list and replace less well-considered AOP wines. There are now more than 150 IGP Vin de Pays wines with reds, whites, and roses, and many many wineries. Knowing which IGP is the best value from which winery in a particular year requires that wine book.


Vins de France

Vins de France replaced the Vins de Table (table wines), and they are considered France's lowest ranking wines, though they are often far from being bad wines. Vins de France are sold without their area of origin on the label.

The regulations that previously applied to Vins de Table remain, more or less, the same. For Vins de France. Vins de France are typically sold under the producer's name or use a brand name that will make it easier for the consumer to recognize. For a single grape wine, the name of the grape used is permitted, and the other wines are blends, Most Vins de France are relatively young wines that are meant to be drunk with only a little aging.

On the table in the home of French consumers, over 75% if the wines are IGP or Vin de France. With the tradition of drinking wine at home, the French consumer tests a few bottles of different Vins de France and then buys a case or two of the best.  French consumers know their wines though the French consumption of wine has dropped steadily over the last 30 years. Despite that, the French still hold the title for the highest per capita consumption of wine. According to figures from the BBC in 2011, the average Frenchman or woman drinks just over one bottle a week.
I noted above that Vins de France wines are often far from being bad wines. Thee wine may come from a vineyard just outside the areas of an AOP or IGP wine. The producer will have no choice but to be grade his or her wine as a Vin de France. The wine produced may be an excellent wine, equal or superior to the vineyards next door. Still, the vineyard just 100 meters (328 feet) outside the precisely graded wine-growing areas will be a Vine de France.

There are also cases where an AOP vineyard used plastic sheeting to prevent too much water reaching the grapes during a period of heavy rain, and for that, the wine was downgraded to a Vin de France. The producer broke the rules. Adding a different grape to a blend will also lose the producer the right to hold an AOP or IGP grading.

Vins de France with a brand name on the label.

Some producers of these otherwise fine wines that do not meet the prescribed format of AOP or IGP have begun selling their Vins de France graded wines with brands that the consumers and wine critics will remember. Small restaurants and bistro owners taste these wines, and when they find a good quality Vins de France, they become their house wines; they will buy as many crates as they need for five or six months, Their low prices and good quality will bring the local diners coming back again and again. Other producers of Vins de France have chosen the path of low-priced marketing with boxed wines and/or adding fruit flavors that attract the younger crowd. The success of the New World Wines has shown that you do not need an AOC, AOP, or IGP to sell good and inexpensive wines.

A branded Vin de France.


A very short history of the French wine grades.

A few French wines have been graded under one system or another for some 500 years. These grades are known to oenophiles, the wine connoisseurs, but that information has little value for most of us. Today's grading began in 1885 when the wine merchants demanded a way to grade Bordeaux wines. Then, "crus," grades, were allocated to wines by using the accepted public thinking of the time along with the current selling price. In the 150 years since then, less than three wines have changed their ratings despite the changes in the art of growing grapes and making wines. Following on the publicly accepted Bordeaux wine grading, then in the 1900s, the Frech Government got involved to makes rules for all of the country's wines. Then in 1935, the government created the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). The Institute of INAO now oversees labels used for all of France's foods and wines, including the Label Rouge and the AB label for organic produce. The appellation legalizes and limits the wines that may be grown in a specific area. The regulations have changed very little over the years. Included in the rules are the crus and the names of the chateaus, villages, which are other forms of grading within the approved grade of AOP, IGP, or Vins de France. The untrained visitor to France needs that book on French wines today.


Are you considering buying an old wine at a bargain price?

If you see a famous or impressively named French AOC/AOP wine five or ten years old, or even older at an enticingly low price, do not buy it! If the wine was marvelous, the French wine mavens would have been there long before you. Caveat Emptor, just as there is no free lunch, there are no famous and good old French wines at bargain prices.

There are no free lunches,
and that is especially true when it comes to wines.


Historically France's different grapes were nearly always blended to produce the best tastes. The first overseas buyers mostly came from England, and they drove the vintners to produce better wines. France's most important wine market was the Port de Bercy, a tax-free village on the Seine River just outside Paris's original walls. In the 1820s, Bercy was the largest wine market in the world. Then the Bercy wine wholesalers produced, in their cellars, the first blends of quite many wines and sent their recipes back to their growers. Some of these blends remain today, and many other wines are versions of blends that began in Bercy.

Wine storage in Bercy.
Despite all the science behind the modern wine industry, the wine experts will tell you and show you that the grapes grown on different soils do produce wines that taste differently. To that, add the weather in a particular year and that unique French expression "Terroir." Terroir, in wine, is the unique difference in taste that comes again and again from a specific part of a vineyard. A vineyard in the same appellation, but 100 yards (91 meters) away, may not have that unique difference in taste. Year by year, the part of a one-acre vineyard may produce markedly better wine than the neighboring acres, and that is its Terroir. That Terroir comes from the soil, the slope on a hill, the shade, or lack of it, and so far, no algorithm has reproduced the difference.

Wine is the perfect accompaniment for most French cuisine, and French diners know very well that a good wine can add to their enjoyment of their meal. The French diner also knows what damage an expensive wine can do to his or her pocketbook or wallet! Even as I love wines, I will not pay more for a wine than I pay for a meal. When someone else is paying, I may enjoy a wine that I usually would not consider.

Organic wines

To all of the three-wine grades noted above, you may see additional labels indicating wines produced from organically grown grapes. The French government AB label, which is the most trusted of all organic labels, will be seen on wines of all three grades.
AB Label.
Agriculture Biologique, Organic Agriculture


Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2019.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

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