Sunday, 25 January 2015

Explaining Classifications and Appellations

One of the most difficult wine topics to delve into is the concept of appellations and classifications. An appellation is a geographically defined area which has legal protection, while a classification is a ranking of wines, most commonly by price or location. Each country has their own appellation system, and there may be multiple classifications even within the same wine region. Because appellations and classifications are man-made structures, they are subject to frequent changes.

Countries in the European Union follow stricter rules on appellations than countries in the New World. In 2009, the EU established two basic designations for wines with geographical indicators – PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). The difference is that PDO wines must have been traditionally and entirely made in the specified region while PGI wines can be partially made in the region. This applies also to the origin of the grapes. Additional regulations such as permitted grape varieties, yields, winemaking methods and alcohol levels may also be defined. However, since traditional terms can still be used, you will still see familiar words such as Appellation Contrôlée on French wines and DOC on Italian wines. One country that has discarded their traditional labelling terms in favour of PDO and PGI designations is Greece.

The most highly regarded wine classification is the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855 which ranked the wines according to price at that time. The classification has not changed much since then, but the prices of the wines have moved substantially. A fundamentally different approach to classification is used in Burgundy, which classifies the vineyards rather than the producer.

The following list gives a short description of the appellation and classification systems in major wine regions. While this information is not set in stone, I hope that it will provide some insight on the different systems and aid you in your wine journey.

France: The three official tiers of French wine quality classification are Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Vin de Pays (VdP) and Vin de France. AOC is the traditional French labelling term for PDO while VdP is the equivalent term for PGI. Some regions may use Indication Géographique Protégée or IGP instead of VdP.

Bordeaux: The preeminent wine region in the world also has the most number of classifications. Status is important in Bordeaux and any changes are regularly contested by producers on the losing end.

Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855: The 1855 classification came about as a result of a request by Emperor Napoleon III to rank the best wines of the Bordeaux for display at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The Bordeaux brokers ranked 60 of the leading châteaux in the Médoc and Graves according to reputation and price. The red wines were organised into a five-tier classification (shown below) while sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac were organised into a two-tier classification. There was no ranking of still white wines as the category was considered less important then. 

Cru Bourgeois: The Cru Bourgeois classification was established in 1932 for those châteaux that were not included in the 1855 classification. There were originally three tiers; Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. However, a legal challenge mounted by disappointed producers resulted in the entire classification being declared void, only to have been reinstated in 2009 with a single tier. Recently, member châteaux voted to reintroduce additional tiers, so we can expect more changes ahead.

Saint-Émilion: The Saint Émilion Classification System was last updated in 2012 and is divided into Grand Cru Classé, Premier Grand Cru Classé B and Premier Grand Cru Classé A. There is also the Saint-Émilion Grand Cru appellation with stricter yields and higher minimum alcohol levels, but these requirements do not guarantee the quality of the wine. So if you come across a wine from Saint-Émilion, bear in mind that a wine labelled Saint Émilion Grand Cru Classé will be significantly better than a wine labelled Saint Émilion Grand Cru. 

Graves Classification: This classification is for the red and white wines of Graves, which may use the title Grand Cru Classé de Graves. Owing to the fact that it covers only a handful of the estates in the Graves appellation, most consumers use the Pessac-Léognan sub-appellation as an indicator of quality.

Burgundy: Burgundy’s vineyards are classified according to the quality of the terroir. From lowest to highest, they are: Regional (e.g. Bourgogne), Commune/Village (e.g. Meursault), Premier Cru (e.g. Beaune Clos des Mouches) and Grand Cru (e.g. Echézeaux). So a producer may make a Grand Cru, Premier Cru or village wine depending on where its vineyards are located.

Rhône Valley: There are no premier crus or grand crus in the Rhone Valley. The classification is based on the appellation system. From lowest to highest, they are: Côtes du Rhône, Côtes du Rhône-Villages (Southern Rhone only) and individual areas called crus such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Cornas. Some villages are permitted to add their name to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation (e.g. Côtes du Rhône-Villages Cairanne). There is no regional appellation; the Côtes du Rhône appellation serves that role. 

Alsace: There are two appellations for the dry wines of Alsace – Alsace AOC and Alsace Grand Cru. Unlike in most of France, the grape variety can and often does appear on the label. 

Germany: In Germany, the sugar level of the grapes at harvest is used to classify the top tier, called Prädikatswein. From lowest to highest sugar level, the six Prädikats are Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese. The grapes for Prädikatswein as well as the next level, Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA), must come from one of Germany’s 13 designated wine regions. The PGI equivalent in Germany is Landwein, which must be made from German grapes but is not a very exciting category.

Italy: Italian wine is divided into four categories as shown in the diagram below. DOC and DOCG are traditional labelling terms for PDO while IGT is the traditional labelling term for PGI. In the 1970s, a group of high-quality wines from Tuscany emerged which were forbidden to use the terms DOC and DOCG because they used international grape varieties. These were called Super-Tuscans and were originally classified as basic Vino da Tavola, although their success promoted the creation of the IGT category. The restrictiveness of the DOCG category along with the expansion of traditional DOC zones, mean that the system is seen less as a guarantor of quality than the French AOC system. Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto have a reputation for producing the highest quality wines.

Spain: The wine scene in Spain is modern and fast moving. The wines used to be classified according to age but Spain has now adopted the EU system with some modifications. Of particular interest is the Denominación de Pago category, created for outstanding single estates in places outside the DO system. It is similar to the Italian IGT category in that it was created to recognise high quality wines that would otherwise be labelled as table wine. VC wines are considered a step up from VT wines which have not yet achieved DO status. The DO category is comparable to the AOC of France while the VT category is similar to France’s VdP.

The traditional practice of aging wines for an extended period is enshrined in local legislation. From youngest to oldest, the categories are Joven, Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva.

Australia: Australia calls its appellations Geographical Indicators (GIs). Each GI must have at least five independently owned wine grape vineyards of at least five hectares each, and usually produce five hundred tonnes of wine grapes in a year. It does not place restrictions on winemaking and is a flat hierarchy. The nearest thing Australia has to a classification is Langton's Classification of Australian Wines, a list of Australia’s finest wines ranked according to a wine’s reputation and track record at auction.


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