Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Introduction to Advanced Study of the Wines of France

In March 2014 I graduated from the International Culinary Center’s Intensive Sommelier Program and passed the Certified Sommelier exams with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Afterwards I knew there were two countries that I wanted and needed to immediately study more in-depth.

The first was Italy, which is a mind-boggling complex country with 20 distinct major wine regions and over a thousand native varietals. To further my knowledge of Italy I decided to write extensive (though by no means exhaustive) notes on the regions, the DOCGs, DOCs and the native grapes and purchase wines from every region of Italy. That study began in August 2014 and was completed in January 2015. All the notes are available in the previous posts.

The second is France, which is without a doubt one of the most important wine countries in the world. To increase my knowledge of France I decided to study through the French Wine Scholar Program at the San Francisco School of Wine.[1]  

The school was founded by David Glancy MS which also offers other wine education courses such as the Italy Wine Scholar Program, the California Wine Appellation Specialist Program , CSW-Certified Specialist of Wine (a comprehensive prep course for the Society of Wine Educators), and Somm Essentials. 

The French Wine Scholar Program is sponsored by the French Wine Society and it consists of 9 classes of 3-hours (FWS-01 to FWS-09) of instruction along with tasting about 7 wines per class. At the end of the course there is a 100 question exam (FWS-10). If participants pass the exam they will receive the French Wine Scholar (FWS) credential. [2]

The reason why I decided to go through the FWS program rather than study France on my own, as I did with Italy, is that there is a benefit to studying in a more communal with other people and in scheduled academic environment in which your studying is tested and you are required to keep up with a pre-scheduled deadline. But, I intend to study and read far more than what is required to pass the exam so, like my study of Italy, my notes will be fairly lengthy and in-depth.

One of the challenges to learning and preparing for exams such is studying in such a way that information is retained and can be recalled from long-term memory. To do so I focus on reading about wine, listening to lectures and discussions about wine, writing about wine and of course tasting wine. So, the purpose of writing and posting these notes is to prepare myself for the FWS exam and to share my work with fellow students and enthusiasts of wine. My notes will be derived from, but are not limited to the following resources from my personal library:

Andre Domine, (ed) Wine (Germany: Tandem Verlag, 2008)

Julien Camus, Lisa M. Airey, Celine Camus (ed), French Wine Scholar Study Manual (French Wine Society). This is the required textbook for the FWS class.

Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible (Workman Publishing, 2001)

Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2006)

Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, The World Atlas of Wine (7th Edition, Octopus Publishing, 2013)

Tom Stevenson, The Sotheby Wine Encyclopedia (5th Edition, Sands Publishing, 2011)

French Wine Classification Laws

Before we can jump into learning about the various regions of France, the grapes, wines and producers we need to have at least a basic understanding of the French wine classification system which is the basic model for most European countries and has evolved over the years. It is rather complicated so while it is intended to convey a certain standard of quality for wines to the average consumer it can also be a source for confusion.
Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié

In 1924 Pierre Le Roy de Boiseaumarié (1890-1967) and the vinegrowers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (CdP) decided to delineate the region as a production zone with an established set of standards similar to the way in which in 1411 cheese producers had done for Roquefort cheese. Then in 1935 he co-founded the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO) and spearheaded the creation of the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system. The AOC system was then put in place in 1937 in all of France.[3]

In 1954 the Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) category was added to the system as a transitional category for those lands being considered for promotion to AOC status.[4]

In 1979 the Vin de Pays (VdP) category, which means “wine of the land” or “country wine”, was added as to encourage producers to create a wine that was a “superior table wine”. It was required to be an unblended wine of limited quantities, of certain specified varieties, and contain a specified alcoholic strength. [5]

The final and lowest classification of wine was Vin de Table (VdT) which are uncomplicated everyday wines that are usually a blend, but possibly a varietal based on a well-known grape variety. Thus thee four quality categories in France were as follows:

  • Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)
  • Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS)
  • Vin de Pays (VdP)
  • Vin de Table (VdT)

The top category also has two sub-classifications which are defined as:

  • Grand Cru is the very highest classification of French wine which can refer:

 (a) The plot of land where the grapes are grown which is used in Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Languedoc and the Loire Valley. This class implies a level of quality although they actually designated location.

 (b) The Chateau that produces the wine such as in Bordeaux.

  • Premier Cru denotes either 1) a vineyard plot (most often in Burgundy) of superior quality, or 2) the very highest tier within a Grand Cru classification (such as the 'Premier Grand Cru Classé' chateaux of Bordeaux).

Under the AOC system, some regions also have local classifications, which I will discuss more in-depth in the future, such as in Burgundy (Grand Cru, Premiere Cru, Village Wines, Regional Wines), Chablis has 4 levels of classified status (Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village Chablis and Petit Chablis) and in the Médoc of the Left Bank of Bordeaux has five classifications for red wines (Premiers Crus / First Growth, Deuxièmes Crus / Second Growth,  Troisièmes Crus / Third Growth, Quatrièmes Crus / Fourth Growth, Cinquièmes Crus / Fifth Growth) and three categories of sweet (Premier Cru Supérieur, Premiers Crus, Deuxièmes Crus).

Then the French government officially announced that the long-standing AOC (Appellation d 'Origine Contrôlée) system for wine would be replaced by a simplified set of categories with the top quality being an AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée).[6] The revised quality categories are:

  • Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP)
  • Indication Geographique Protegée (IGP)
  • Vin de Table (VdT)

Then in 2012 the Vin de Table category was renamed Vin de France so current quality categories are designated as follows:

  • Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP)
  • Indication Geographique Protegée (IGP)
  • Vin de France (VdF)

[3] Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book (1st ed.). (Kavino Book Publishing, 2009), 18, 254–256, 473.

[4] Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2006), 728.

[5] Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2006), 736.

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