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Compared to Greece and Italy, France is a relatively young wine-growing country. The Greeks were the first to bring vines to France in the 6th century BC, when they founded Massalia (lat. Massillia = Marseille) in the south-west, on the Mediterranean coast. At this time, the country, which was only later called Gaul by the Romans, was inhabited by Celts. A lively trade developed, with the Greeks supplying the needs of the Gallic people, who developed a great taste for wine. When they started moving into the Po plains in the 5th century, they became acquainted with Italian wine and their methods of production, and also started importing these wines. In other words, the tribes who were later to become the French nation had a long history of wine consumption, even before they began growing their own wines in any sort of commercial quantities. When Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) conquered Gaul, wine consumption was systematically spread. The Rhône valley was the first, in the 1st century, Burgundy and Bordeaux followed in the 2nd century and the Loire in the 3rd century AD. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius ProbusProbus Marcus Aurelius (232-282) lifted the prohibition imposed by emperor Domitian (51-96), and in the mid-3rd century ordered the planting of vines all over Gaul. The king of the Franks, and later emperor Charlemagne (742-814) issued edicts that set decisive impulses for modern-day viticulture in France. The Catholic Cistercian order of monks was founded in the Cîteaux abbey in Burgundy in 1098, and spread rapidly all over Europe. The monks perfected wine production in terms of selecting soils, selecting suitable grape varieties and in developing wine production methods, all of which had its effects all over Europe. The Benedictine order of monks, too, had an impact of equal importance for viticulture, their perhaps most famous member was Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715), the „inventor” of assemblage, the art of blending wines. It is also worth mentioning that wine was taken into consideration in the French revolutionary calendar, with the month of September designated as Vendèmiaire (wine month).
The famous Bordeaux classification was initiated in 1855, and this had a great influence later on for the classification systems, which are quite different in various individual regions. Not long thereafter, the country became the origin of the greatest and most comprehensive catastrophe in the history of world viticulture, with both mildew and phylloxera starting their destructive march across Europe here in the 1860s. France was particularly hard hit, with more than three-fifths (700.000 ha) of the vineyard area being destroyed. At the same time, the ”Golden Years of Bordeaux got under way, a sign for a new beginning, with many vineyards being established and replanted in the Médoc. The French were among the first to realise that a particular soil, in conjunction with the climate prevalent there, and the use of specific grape varieties will produce wines with unique and unmistakeable characteristics. The Cistercian monks were among the first to realise this. The term terroir was coined in the first third of the 20th century for this phenomenon. In 1923, the owner of Château Fortia, Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (1890-1967) described the 13 ideal grape varieties for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, based on the typical soil and climate within a region defined and delimited by him. A further impulse came from agricultural professor Joseph Capus (1868-1947), who, together with the baron, is considered to be one of the initiators and patrons of the appellation regulations for wine.
All over the world today, French wine is considered to be something special, and an expression of cultural perfection. In his book ”Atlas of French wines, well-known British wine author Hugh Johnson had this to say: „In the course of history, a form of cultural perfection has developed at various points on earth, which cannot be explained logically. If one thinks of the Middle East, it is the religious fertility, the name of Germany is associated with music, that of Italy with architecture. But speak of France, and one thinks spontaneously of the joys of good food and drink. The French select and prepare their dishes with more enthusiasm and care than anybody else in the world. Surely this genial talent for enjoyment has helped the French in becoming the creator of the most noble wines.”
There are widely divergent opinions and philosophies, and style in France when it comes to blending grape varieties. In the south and southwest particularly in Bordeaux it is particularly the red wines that are blended from several varieties, these are the classical blends collectively known as Bordeaux blends. On the other hand, in the more northerly regions, such as for example Chablis, Alsace, Loire, Savoie and particularly in Burgundy, wines are generally produced from a single variety. The vineyard system, and the related classification system, is particularly well-developed in Burgundy. The total vineyard area in 2000 amounted to 917.000 hectares, putting France in the leading field worldwide, together with Spain and Italy. Around 60% of production is from red varieties, the remaining 40% from white varieties. The ten leading grape varieties are:
* Carignan (red) 165.000 ha
* Ugni Blanc (white) 101.000 ha
* Grenache Noir (red) 82.000 ha
* Merlot (red) 55.000 ha
* Syrah (red) 54.000 ha
* Cinsaut (red) 46.000 ha
* Aramon Noir (red) 37.000 ha
* Gamay (red) 36.000 ha
* Cabernet Sauvignon (red) 35.000 ha
* Chardonnay (white) 18.000 ha
In 2000, around 58 million hectolitres of wine were produced, putting France in first place worldwide (although France tends to alternate with Italy in this position almost on an annual basis). The country is divided into 95 administraitve départements, which are further divided into districts (arrondissements) and cantons. The wine-growing regions are spread fairly evenly over three quarters of the surface area. These regions have been divided into 465 appellations (as per mid-2006), controlled and protected by the INAO. In contrast to the situation in Italy (where they are 100% identical), the boundaries of the wine-growing regions only rarely coincide with the political boundaries (e.g. Bordeaux and Alsace). It should be noted that the division and naming of wine-growing regions is stated very diffrerently in different sources. One of the most frequent divisions is as follows:
* Armagnac 12.000 ha
* Bordeaux 113.000 ha
* Burgundy 40.000 ha
* Champagne 34.000 ha
* Cognac 75.000 ha
* Alsace 15.000 ha
* Jura 1.900 ha
* Corsica 7.500 ha
* Languedoc 250.000 ha
* Loire 70.000 ha
* Lorraine 125 ha
* Provence 25.000 ha
* Rhone 60.000 ha
* Roussillon 37.000 ha
* Savoie 1.800 ha
* South-West France 160.000 ha
As long ago as the end of the first millenium, France had strict wine laws, and it was the first country to draw up precise maps showing the geographic position and boundaries of wine-growing regions. This was done by defining legally valid regions and boundaries, which could be used to clearly deduce the quality of a wine. It is determined by which ”appellation the wine is from. The better a wine is, the more specific are the regulations. The specific system of „controlled origin” is described in more detail under Appellation Contrôlée. The appellation resp. quality wine system is controlled by the official INAO, the ONIVINS authority is responsible for vins de table (table wines) and vins de pays (country wines). The following classes of wine quality exist:
Vin de table: The lowest quality category, for basic wine, equivalent to „Vino de tavola” in Italy or Tafelwein in Germany or Austria. These wines are also known as „vins ordinaires”, formerly also known as VCC (vin de consommation courante). These wines may be from a classified region, but do not comply with the standards of the appellation (varieties, maximum yield, minimum alcohol content), but they may also be blends from all over France. Only ”France may be stated as an area of origin. The largest volume of these wines comes from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The grape vaireties most frequently used are the red varieties Alicante Henri Bouschet, Aramon Noir and Carignan. However, the grape variety may not be stated on the label. Some of these wines are used for distillation. These are generally simple wines for mass consumption, and even the French usually mix them with a little water when drinking them.
Vin de pays: This category ist he equivalent of „IGT” in Italy, or Landwein in German or Austria, it represents the elite of table wines. The rules for this category were determined in 1979, they are a little less strict than those for the VDQS category, and differ from one region to the next. The wine must be sourced from a specified geographical area, and may not be blended with grapes or wines from outside the area. The permitted grape varieties are defined, as is the maximum yield of 70 to 90 hl/ha (increases announce in 2007), a minimum alcohol content of between 9 and 11% vol, and the permissible limit for sulphur. Both the acidity and the alcohol content are subject to analysis. There are regional, départemental and zonal (local) regions. The five regional zones stretch over several départements; they are Comtés Rhodaniens, Comté Tolosan, Jardin de la France, Oc and Portes de Méditerranée. The Départementales correspond with one of the 40 départements, for example Alpes de Haute-Provence, Bouches-du-Rhône, Herault and Var. There are around one hundred local zones, encompassing from single communes to several districts. Some better-known ones include Allobrogie, Collines Rhodaniennes, Côtes de Gascogne, Côtes du Brian and Ile de Beauté.
There are thus around 150 vins de pays in total. Only a very few of these ever make it to the VDQS category, and even fewer becoman AOC. The individual dsitricts frequently overlap, and wine producers often have a choice of two or three VdP designations available. They will then give first preference to the name that is best known, or if the wine is very basic, to the zone that has the lowest standards. Around 85% of all vins de pays come from the huge Midi region in southern France. Overall, this category makes up approximately 20% of total wine production in France. 70% of the wines are red, 20% are rosé and 10% are white wines. Many of them are made as varietal wines, and there are numerous vins de pays made from Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, popular varieties in this category. However, the authorities are not happy about this development, as it runs counter to the appellation principle. In an attempt to work against this trend, a concept of two grape varieties was introduced in 1996. Vins de pays wines are generally fresh and fruity, and are usually drunk young.
VDQS (AOVQDS) = (Appellation d´Origine) Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure: This category was created in the early 1950s, and is considered to be a stepping stone to full AC classification. However, there have been very few new classifications announced since the mid-1980s. The quality of the wines is frequently equal to that of the highest category, AC. The rules are slightly less strict, but their implementation is also controlled by the INAO. However, there are no further sub-classifications (Crus), as are common with AC wines. The wines are from a specified region, and the origin is guaranteed. The regulations include lists of permitted grape varieties, maximum yields and minimum alcohol content. The largest number of VDQS regions can be found in southern France.
AOC or AC = Appellation d´Origine Contrôlée: The highest category of quality defines the area of origin, varieties and production methods (see also under Appellation Contrôlée). The designation on the label may refer to an entire region (e.g. Bordeaux), to a commune (e.g. Sauternes), a vineyard (e.g. Montrachet) or to a specific type of wine (e.g. to Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine). There are additional, inofficial quality designations within these AC classifications. Depending on the region, these can differ in designation and level. See also under Bordeaux classification, Burgundy classification and Échelle des Crus.