In my last article on the origins of French wine regulations, I had the nerve to say that French wines over the centuries were mediocre. Several people rightfully questioned that statement, saying they had always heard that French wines were the best of the best. How could the best of the best be just mediocre? The answer lies in the history of French wine laws.
From doing some research, here’s what I found out. At the end of the nineteenth century, French vineyards, along with many European vineyards, were devastated by plant diseases. At the turn of the century, vineyards were starting to rebuild and replant. But the wine shortage left room for a lot of fraud, which made high-quality winemakers nervous.
Foodtourist.com does a good job of describing what happened next: “Many talked about the need to introduce some control into vineyard practices, the making of the wine and the marketing of wine.
“Some attempts were made to establish regional appellations and to ensure that only grapes grown in that region were used in wines that were labelled as such…
“However there was no control over the types of grape that could be grown, the yields from the vineyard, the pruning methods or harvesting techniques let alone the way in which the wine was made.
“Some visionaries could see that more needed to be done. Much credit for driving reform is given to Baron le Roy and his pioneering work in Chateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone just north of the historic city of Avignon. His work helped convince the authorities to undertake the formation of the INAO in 1935 (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) as the body with the legal responsibility for administering appellations in France.”
Under the AOC system, there are three main categories of wine. In descending order of quality, they are Vins d’Appellation D’Origine Controlee (AOC), Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure (VDQS) and Vins De Pays. All have strict rules, but AOC has the strictest. Only about 30% of French wines earn the AOC designation.
The esteemed AOC designation doesn’t guarantee you a good-tasting wine or even one that you’ll like, but it does guarantee that the wine comes from a particular region and adheres to its wine making regulations, which often contribute to better quality.
There are equivalent quality designations in other countries, modeled after the French system. These include D.O.C. in Italy, V.Q.A. in Canada, D.O. in Spain and Portugal, and A.A. in the United States. Their rules vary, as does their legal enforcement, but their quality-control focus is the same.
Future articles in this series will provide an overview of the French wine laws, downsides of the laws, and trends.
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