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Great French wines | Is it all about Labels?

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Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle” …  Paulo Coelho, Brida

It’s unromantic, pouty: Labels, methods, classifications and designations… not the most loveable aspects of wine says wine writer Jill Barth…

Our most memorable at-table moments are thanks to our senses and the blessed loved ones that share our experience. It’s true: the energy of wine comes from a place deeper than tasting notes.

But, when we’ve gotten there with wine, when wine takes us all the way, it’s a pleasure getting tangled up in the civilized necessities of capturing a wine through language, presentation and order. It’s not wine snobbery at this heightened state. Let’s call it wine scholarship.

What AOC mean?

great french winesThe French wear wine scholarship well.  The level of detail in the AOC structure of France keeps tidy bookkeeping of exactly where the vines were grown and what varietals are vinted. AOC is shorthand for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée  and this institution of geographical wine specification is not only an indicator of where a vineyard exists, but also designates which regions can grow which grape varieties and to a certain extent how the wine is made.  French wines will wear their designations, if they have them, on their label. If the universe is in a particularly good mood, the bottle in your hand will be labeled Grand Cru. If so, you can pause here and enjoy your wine. We’ll continue later…

Two more designations to consider: In 2009 IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) became the new name for Vins du Pays, considered country wines, those from areas not strictly contained in a particular AOC region. Vin de France casts an even wider net; no geographic scope is outlined and varietal and vintage rarely appear on the label.  Basically, you’ll find these two options less picky than AOC designations.

AOC’s concepts are evolutions from the old world, when the first French controlled origin decree was placed on Roquefort cheese. Wine, finding itself perpetually sharing a table with cheese, began to be managed by a similar process. Just before the turn of the 20th century a louse feasted on the sap of French grapevines.  This invader, Phylloxera, was overwhelmingly destructive, causing a sickening decrease in wine production. It’s a heartbreaking chunk of wine history and what followed this misfortune were opportunistic schemes and scams. Fradulent and adulterated wine came on the scene to take advantage of all the thirsty folks, prompting the government to make early efforts to draw up geographic designation. Further development was issued in the early 1920’s when a wine producer, Baron le Roy of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, arranged an early version of the AOC system which was adopted by the French government. In 1935 the AOC took the shape of the structure we know it to be today.

great french wine

Wine and cheese aren’t the only French products that answer to a geographic code. You’ll find special sources for poultry (Poulet de Bresse), lavender (Haute Provence Lavender Essential Oil), honey (from the island of Corsica), mustard (you know this one—from Dijon) and more; all yummy, wonderfully scented or otherwise irresistible.

What does Grand Cru mean?

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing… “  Ernest Hemingway

It might seem pernickety, especially considering that the AOC designation doesn’t ensure quality or even a satisfactory bottle of wine. It’s a commitment that the wine meets the stated criteria, but consumers are still the judge: will it be served to the in-laws? Will it be taken on the sailboat picnic? Is this an anniversary bottle?

And the Grand Cru label mentioned earlier? This is a regional designation indicating that your wine is from a highly favorable vineyard. Expect a level world-class level of potential from this vineyard and its terroir.  It’s a trust-us-its-a-sure-thing example of how a label can excite. The spirit of expectation is arguably the most thrilling aspect of the designation process, particularly when tasting the bottle of wine simply isn’t an option until it’s been opened.

Despite the buildup, how it tastes at your table is the real stardust…and you won’t find that on the label.

Jill Barth is a wine writer in Chicago.

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