France’s soil has been yielding quality wine for centuries now, and some vintages are even fought over at auctions. Several steps are required to go from grape to vintage wine: vine selection, vineyard cultivation, winemaking techniques, etc. The combination of these different parameters creates wines that vary greatly in taste - producing something for every wine lover’s palate!
The Ancient Greeks celebrated wine by worshipping Dionysus, while the Romans venerated Bacchus. More than seven hundred years before our time, wild vines were being planted in Asia Minor. That is where the practice of cultivating vines began, gradually extending to various Mediterranean countries. Although a significant source of wealth, wine was difficult to transport from one region to the next, which is why each province soon boasted its own vintage. At the end of the fifteenth century, wine reached new shores and developed in the newly discovered Americas. Today, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are all wine-growing regions - as are nearly 20 million acres worldwide! France, the world’s leading wine producer, currently has the second largest area under vines, tied with Italy but behind Spain.
While all vines produce grapes, not all grapes make wine: some grapes are for eating, others are for processing. Each grape comes from a specific vine, characterised by its own set of features. There are over 6,000 grape varieties worldwide, some 50 of which are cultivated in France: Italia, Alphonse Lavallée, Chasselas and Muscat for table grapes; Carignan, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Syrah, Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir for red wine; and Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Sémillon, Melon, Chenin, Colombard and Riesling for white wine. The expertise of the winemaker and oenologist, combined with the quality of the ground cultivated, the meteorological features of a given year and various other factors all influence the quality of the wine. Each vineyard has its winemaking secrets, which aficionados can discover by travelling through France. Countless wine routes crisscross France’s many regions, bringing wine amateurs into contact with winemakers who are delighted to help visitors discern the qualities of the wines they so lovingly craft.
As a traditional French product, all of wine’s different aspects are carefully considered. An official body supervised by the Ministries of Agriculture and Budget regulates the winemaking profession, while the French winemakers’ association, ONIVINS (Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins), intervenes throughout France and at all industry levels, from the planting of young vines to the marketing and distribution of the wine bottles.
Four levels of wine quality are recognized in France, regulated by more or less stringent production conditions. While “vin de table” (table wine) production is the least regulated, “vin de pays”(country wine) production is strictly limited to a precise geographical area that gives its name to the wine. The “Vins d’Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée”, or AOC wines, are officially recognized. Produced in a clearly defined - and often prestigious - terroir (literarily, “soil”, but the term also includes references to other environmental factors), these wines must meet very demanding production standards established in official decrees. Designed to respect a specific winemaking tradition, these standards define the permissible yields, guarantee a minimum alcohol level, and even regulate aging conditions. There are over 400 AOC wines in France. “Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure” (VDQS), or “Delimited Wines of Superior Quality”, are subjected to less rigid but still very controlled production guidelines. They are considered a step above the “Vins de pays” but below the AOC level.
Although these various designations, or appellations, are based on different production rules, they do not always guarantee the quality of the wine. While AOC wines are often superior to other wines, some “vins de pays” are more pleasing than VDQS wines. This is where the wine taster’s skills come into play. Wine is assessed according to three sensory criteria. Its appearance first, used to judge the wine’s colour and clarity. These two features often reveal the grape variety or the wine’s age. Next, the intensity and quality of the wine’s aroma determine its “bouquet”. Only then is the wine’s flavour judged based on its acidity, its sweetness or bitterness, and other factors. Last but not least, the sommelier’s expertise also lies in knowing which wine to pair with the cuisine served: truly the height of the French “art of living”!
Office National Interprofessionnel des Vins: www.onivins.fr