France is one of the oldest wine-producing regions of Europe. The production of wine in France has its origins in the 6th century BC, with the colonization of Southern Gaul by Greek settlers. Viticulture soon flourished with the founding of the Greek colony of Marseille. Regions in the south were licensed by the Roman Empire to produce wines. St. Martin of Tours (316-397) was actively engaged in both spreading Christianity and planting vineyards. During the Middle Ages, monks maintained vineyards and, more important, wine making knowledge and skills during that often turbulent period. Monasteries had the resources, security, and motivation to produce a steady supply of wine for both celebrating mass and generating income. During this time the best vineyards were owned by the monasteries and their wine was considered to be superior. Over time the nobility acquired extensive vineyards. However, the French Revolution led to the confiscation of many of the vineyards owned by the Church and others.
Despite some exports from Bordeaux, until about 1850 most wine in France was consumed locally. People in Paris drank wine from the local vineyards, people in Bordeaux drank Bordeaux, those in Burgundy drank Burgundy, and so on throughout the country. The spread of railroads and the improvement of roads reduced the cost of transportation and dramatically increased exports.
France now produces the most wine by value in the world (although Italy rivals it by volume and Spain has more land under cultivation for wine grapes). Bordeaux wine, Bourgogne wine and Champagne are important agricultural products.
The appellation system
A number of laws to control the quality of French wine were passed in 1935. They established the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system, which is governed by a powerful oversight board (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine - INAO). Consequently, France has one of the oldest appellation systems for wine in the world, and strictest laws concerning winemaking and production. Many other European systems are modelled on it. With European Union wine laws being modelled on those of the French, this trend is likely to continue with further EU expansion.
French law divides wine into four categories, two falling under the European Union's Table Wine category and two falling under the EU's Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR) designation. The categories are:
- Vin de Table - Carries with it only the producer and the designation that it is from France
- Vin de Pays - Carries with it a specific region within France (for example Vin de Pays d'Oc)
- Vin Délimité de Qualité Superieure (VDQS) - Less strict than AOC, not often used
- Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) - Wine from a particular area with many other restrictions, including grape varieties and winemaking methods
Today there are 450 different wine appellations in France, yet only 15% of all French wines enjoy the marketing benefits of AOC designations.
The labels on a bottle of French wine often carry important information that can help the consumer evaluate its potential quality. Following are some potentially important phrases:
"Mis en bouteille au..." chateau, domaine, or propriété indicate the wine was actually made at the same location as it was grown. "Au chateau" means that it was bottled at the chateau printed on the wine's label, using grapes from vineyards around the chateau itself. "Au domaine" means that it was bottled "at the field," while "à la propriété" means bottled "at the estate." "Mis en bouteille dans nos caves" or "mis en bouteille dans nos chais" means that it was probably bottled in a different place than it was grown, using grapes traded and bought on the open market.
"Vigneron indépendant" is a special mark of independent wine-makers, to distinguish themselves from larger corporate winemaking operations and symbolize a return to the basics of the craft of wine-making. Bottles from independent makers carry a special logo that is usually printed on the foil cap covering the cork.
Terroir refers to the unique combination of natural factors associated with any particular vineyard. These factors include such things as soil, underlying rock, altitude, slope of hill or terrain, orientation toward the sun, and microclimate (typical rain, winds, humidity, temperature variations, etc.) No two vineyards, not even in the same area, have exactly the same terroir.
France has traditionally been the largest consumer of its own wines. However, wine consumption has been dropping in France for 40 years. During the decade of the 1990s, per capita consumption dropped by nearly 20 percent. Therefore, French wine producers must rely increasingly on foreign markets. However, consumption has also been dropping in other potential markets such as Italy, Spain and Portugal.
The result has been a continuing wine glut, often called the wine lake, that has led to the distillation of wine into industrial alcohol as well as a government program to pay farmers to pull up their grape vines through vine pull schemes. A large part of this glut is caused by the re-emergence of Languedoc wine.
Immune from these problems has been the market for Champagne as well as the market for the expensive ranked or classified wines. However, these constitute only about five percent of French production.
French regulations in 1979 created simple rules for the then-new category of Vin de pays. The Languedoc-Roussillon region has taken advantage of its ability to market varietal wines.