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French Wines classification

The French system of designating and controlling the names of wines (as well as spirits and certain foodstuff) by their geographical origin is much admired and has been copied by many countries. The regulations, their implementation and adherence are administered by INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine). INAO was created in 1935 to regulate and enforce quality specifications nationwide.
The regulation is based on the idea that "terroir" is the main element in producing wines and as such has a deciding influence on the quality and typicity of them. Terroir has a wider meaning than soil. The term comprises many aspects such as e.g. the micro-climatic and soil conditions but includes also viti- and vinicultural conditions as regulated by INAO such as the grape varieties which can be grown in a certain area, the yield and many other aspects. Terroir thus becomes a combination of natural elements and regulated standards.
The system has contributed enormously to raise and maintain the standards of French wines. However, it also has its drawbacks. It is inherently protective of a status once acquired and leaves no room for experimentation. Changes, if undertaken at all, are extremely slow. The INAO apparatus has also become very unwieldy. While INAO is a national institution, French wines are essentially known for and identified by their regional character.
What French wines have in common is that they are made to accompany food, not to please as an aperitif wine. Many can be consumed young or after a few years while others can and should be cellared for decades before being achieving their prime. The current classification system in France has been undergoing an up dating process for several years. The revised system will become valid from 2012. The new regulations apply to wines bottled from 2012; already bottled wines are not required to be re-labelled. The main element of the changes is that from 2012 there will be three classifications instead of four previously. While the higher grade A.O.C. wines will be renamed A.O.P. and there are some minor regulatory changes, essentially very little is changed. The category VDQS that applied to less than 1 % of the wines produced will be discontinued. The category VDT (Vin de Table) will be renamed VDF (Vin de France) while VDP (Vin de Pays) will be renamed IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee).

A.O.C. / A.O.P. Fr. "Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée" meaning "of Controlled Origin" (up to 2012) and "Appelation d'Origine Protégés" meaning "of Protected Origin" (from 2012).

AOC/AOP is the highest classification. Wines must originate from a specified area and must adhere to a number of quality requirements among others grape varieties permitted, yield a hectare, winemaking methods and many more. Although the production of wines has decreased considerably in France due to changing consumer habits, the production of AOC wines has increased as a result of consumer seeking higher quality wines.

VDQS Fr. "Vin Delimité de Qualité Supérieure" (Wines defined as being of Superior Quality)

Quality wise the wines are situated about midway between Vin de Pays (VdP) and A.O.C. The system was introduced during the 1950s. Only small quantities of wine, mainly from the Loire and Southwest, are produced as VDQS. The category may be considered something like a preparation for A.O.C. status. Often VDQS areas are subsequently promoted to A.O.C status. Note: This classification is discontinued from 2012. Wines previously classified, as VDQS must now either qualify for A.O.P. status or are downgraded to IGP level.

VdP / IGP Fr. "Vin de Pays" meaning "Country wine" (up to 2012) and "Indication Geographique Protégée meaning "Protected Geographique Identification" (from 2012).

Introduced between 1973 and 1979 this regulation was meant to encourage the production of regional wines of higher than VdT (Vin de Table) grade quality. Nowadays about 34 % of the wines produced in France are designated as being of VdP quality. In order to qualify as a Vin de Pays the wine must come from a specified area, must be made of specified grape varieties, must not be blended (with wines from other regions), must adhere to regulated yields/hectare, must possess a min. alcoholic degree and must have been approved by a panel of experts after having been tasted.

There are three categories of VdP/IGP wines: regional, departmental and local. All in all about 150 VdP/IGP designations exist. Some designations are not used others are unknown outside the area where they are produced. Most of the VdP/IGP wines are produced in the Languedoc-Roussilon and other areas in the south of France. Some producers voluntarily downgrade their wines from A.O.C. status in order to use grape varieties not permitted under the A.O.C. regulations to produce wines of outstanding quality (often sold at extremely high prices). VdP/IGP wines can be labelled as Varietals (e.g. Chardonnay, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon etc.) as opposed to the A.O.C. regulation. Such wines have become quite popular and in particular outside France where Varietal wines are popular.

VdT/VDF Fr. "Vin de Table" meaning Table wine (up to 2012) and Vin de France (from 2012)

Formerly known as "Vin Ordinaire" these are simple and cheap wines meant for early consumption. Most of them are red wines but some whites are made. The production of these wines has decreased considerably over the years to less than 12 % now as consumers seek higher quality wines instead. The new regulations permit VDF wines to state the vintage and the grape varieties on the label, which previously was not permitted.

Stated above are the national classifications. However, as mentioned before, French wines are known essentially for their regional identities. The vast number of different wines and the differences in quality among them, even within the same Appellation (area), has created the desire and need to grade wines regionally. Some of the classifications were established a long time ago and have been upheld continuously while others were created more recently. Some were discontinued because they never became popular or because of differences among regional producers. Some estates have surpassed their original status of classification yet are obliged to retain the same grade while others did not live up to their classification over time yet also continue to retain their status. While these classifications, all in all, reflect the quality of the wines and are thus helpful especially in combination with the prices paid for them by the market, the best way still is to get to know the wines and to have confidence in the merchant who sells them.

The Alsace classifications:

There are two grades for Alsace wines. AOC/AOP wines must state the grape variety on the label and the AOC/AOP appellation. Those classified as "Grand Cru" must also adhere to the AOC/AOP appellation but must, in addition, state the name of the site (lieux-dite) on the label. 51 Grands Crus sites (lieux-dites) exist currently.

The Bordeaux classifications:

Given the fact that the French classification system is so much based on "Terroir" one could image that this style of classification is also applied to the regional Bordeaux classification system. But that is not so. Here the wines of a producer (chateau) are classified not the terroir.

 The Medoc Classification of 1855

Red wines  White wines
1st Growth1e Grand Cru ClasséSuperior 1st Growth1e Cru Superieur
2nd Growth2e Grand Cru Classé1st Growth1e Cru Classé
3rd Growth3e Grand Cru Classé2nd Growth2e Cru Classé
4th Growth4e Grand Cru Classé  
5th Growth5e Grand Cru Classé  

The Graves Classification of 1953, 1959 and 1987
Red and White wines Eligible wines are classified as "Cru Classe"
The St. Emilion Classification of 1955 (Note: wines are re-classified every 10 years)
1st 1e Grand Cru Classe A
2nd 1e Grand Cru Classe B
3rd Grand Cru Classe
Note: the notation "Grand Cru" exists but is not comparable to the classification "Grand Cru classe"
The Crus Bourgeois Classification of 1932
While the classification as "Cru Bourgeois" continues to exist the usage of the designations "Cru Bourgeois Exceptionel" and "Cru Bourgeois Superieur" on the label are not permitted any longer.
Second labels
De-classifying a part of the harvest is a common practice in Bordeaux. It permits the chateau to ensure that their classified "Cru" maintains a high standard (and price). As a rule, wines made from younger vines or wines which otherwise do not fit the quality level of the classified cru are sold as 2nd label wines. Wines from exceptionally poor vintages may also be sold as a 2nd label wines. Some famous chateaux have also bought neighbouring vineyards to sell the wines as 2nd label wines. 

The Bourgogne Classifications:

Contrary to the Bordeaux classification in Burgundy the "Terroir" is classified and not the producer or estate( Domaine). Here, contrary to the chateaux in Bordeaux several, often many estates, share the same appellation (location). Vineyards are small, sometimes extremely small. As a result the appellation, not the name of the estate (like in Bordeaux) takes up the main space on the label. It should be noted that considerable differences in quality, style and character exist between the wines of different estates even though they all state the same appellation on the label. Thus, in Burgundy, more than anywhere else, knowing the estate and the appellation is of vital importance. The following classifications exist in Burgundy:

Grand Cru
Grands Crus wines account for only about 2 % of the production. The best vineyards (called climats) within certain sites have been accorded Grand Cru status. Grands Crus wines require several years to age (from 5 ~ 15 or more years) before reaching their prime. The yield is limited to 35 hectolitres / hectare. The very top Domaines (estates) often produce not more that 20 to 25 hectolitres a hectare. On the label Grand Cru is stated followed only by the name of the vineyard. The name of the village (obligatory for other classified Burgundy wines) is not stated. 

Premier Cru
About 12 % of the wines produced in Burgundy originate from climats that have been granted the appellation "Premier Cru". Like Grands Crus wines they reach their prime after having been cellared for several years (for most that means between 3 ~ 10 years). The yield is limited to 45 hectolitres a hectare. Premier Cru must state the name of the village followed by the name of the vineyard (climat). Those, which are the produce of several vineyards (in the same village), can state only the name of the village (not followed by the name of a vineyard.
Village wines
Wines bearing the Village appellation can be made from a blend from several vineyards within the village appellation or from a single non-classified vineyard. Wines from a certain village appellation are considered to be distinct from those of another village appellation due to their different terroir. Village wines account for about a third of all Burgundy wines produced. The yield is limited to 50 hectolitres a hectare. The name of the village is to be stated on the label. The village name can be followed by the name of a single vineyard (climat) if the wine originates from it only. Although some will keep longer most Village wines are meant to be drunk within 2 ~ 5 years. Some of the villages have added the name of their most famous vineyard to their name e.g. Puligny-Montrachet.
Regional wines
There exist three regional appellation wines. The yield for all three is limited to 55 hectolitres a hectare. The wines are meant to be consumed early. While only white and red wines are allowed to be made under the Grand-, Premier Cru and Village appellation and which must be made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, the regional appellation wines are less restricted in their choice. Three regional appellation exist:

  1. AOC/AOP Bourgogne,
  2. Sub-regional/area wines e.g. Macon-Villages and
  3. Varietal or Style named wines e.g. Bourgogne-Passe-Tout-Grains or Cremant de Bourgogne (Sparkling wines)

Declassified wines
To ensure the highest quality (and price) for their wine a Domaine (estate) may wish to use only the best wines from the classified terroir for its (main) label. In Bourgogne 2nd labels do not exist (as in Bordeaux), but the Domaine can de-classify all or part of the wines it produced to the next (lower) level. Thus all or part of a Grand Cru wine can be de-classified into a Premier Cru, a Premier Cru into a Village wine and a Village wine into a Bourgogne AOC/AOP wine.

Chablis classification
Chablis is part of the Bourgone region but has its own classification system which however is very similar to the Bourgogne one. The following grades exist:

  1. Grand Cru
  2. Premier Cru
  3. Village
  4. The classification "Petit Chablis" (little Chablis) is ranked below Village level.

Beaujolais classification
Beaujolais too is part of the Bourgogne region, but it produces very different wines and also has its own classification system. Beaujolais is produced in over 90 villages and has 12 different appellations. Between a third and half of the wines produced are sold annually as Beaujolais Nouveau. Few white wines exist, as vintners are not permitted to grow more than 10 % of white grape varieties. Beaujolais rose exist but very little of it is produced. The original Beaujolais appellation was established in 1936, since then is has been up dated several times with the last one taking place in 1988. Most Beaujolais wines, with the exception of Beaujolais Crus wines, are meant to be consumed within 1 ~ 2 years.

  • Beaujolais AOC/AOP

Under this appellation about 60 % of the Beaujolais are produced in over 60 villages. The maximum yield permitted is 55 hectolitres a hectare. Most Beaujolais Nouveau produced bear this appellation. A Beaujolais Superieur appellation exist too, the wine must have a 0,5 % higher degree in alcohol than the simple appellation.

  • Beaujolais-Villages AOC/AOP

Beaujolais-Villages wines are produced in the northern Haut-Beaujolais in over 30 villages. The max. Yield permitted is 50 hectolitres a hectare. White wines produces in this region are often sold under the appellation of Macon-Villages or Saint-Veran as they are better known among consumers.

  • Beaujolais Cru

It should be noted that the appellation "Cru" in Beaujolais does not apply to a (single) vineyard but to all 10 communities producing the wines. Seven are villages, two are sites located on a mount (hill) while one (Moulin-a-Vent) is named after the local windmill. Beaujolais Nouveau is not permitted to be produces in this area. The max. Yield permitted is 48 hectolitres a hectare. Beaujolais is rarely mentioned on the label to distinguish these wines from the "ordinary" Beaujolais wines. Beaujolais Cru wines are meant to be cellared before reaching their prime i.e. the lighter ones for about 3 years, the medium ones for 4 ~ 5 years and the very best for 5 ~ 10 years.

The Champagne classification

The champagne classification differs from Bordeaux and Burgundy classifications. While it classifies the terroir as do these two its main aim is to classify the quality of the grapes so that a sliding price scale can be applied to all grapes produced in the region. The reason is that few growers produce their own champagne while few large Champagne houses produce the vast majority of champagne. Even though the number of owner-producers has increased over the years the traditional way namely that Champagne houses buy grapes from growers to produce champagne remains largely dominant. The current classifications system was created at the beginning of the 20th century after riots in 1910 and 1911 finally brought growers and producers to agree on a system which pays growers based on the classification of their grapes instead of using the Champagne houses' financial power to negotiate individual (low) prices for the grapes purchased. The villages producing the best grapes were granted Grand Cru status, others slightly below the Premier Cru status with the rest retaining their AOC status. The vast majority of champagne are blended using wines of different areas and vintages to maintain the same style. As a result few Grand- and Premier Cru champagne are made. But some exist as do single vineyard champagne, even more rare.



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