Each of us is shaped by the place we’re from—and wine is no different. The origin of a wine tells you what you can expect from a bottle, from taste and flavor profile to price. It also guarantees a certain level of quality. Nobody wants to blow $65 on a counterfeit bottle of “Champagne.”
Simply put, an appellation is a legally defined and protected region. In the context of wine, the classification indicates where the grapes are grown, but appellations are also used for other products like cheese, chocolate, and coffee. These systems work to shield producers from imitators and give consumers a reference point for comparing wines.
Laws and regulations vary from appellation to appellation, but in general, the rules dictate which grapes can be used and how they’re grown and what styles of winemaking are permitted. There are distinctive characteristics associated with certain appellations, like the mineral freshness of wine from Muscadet, in the Loire Valley, or the refined bubbles of Champagne.
It would take a lifetime to learn the ins and outs of every appellation in the world. But developing a basic sense of how these systems work will allow you to more easily discover wines you’ll love. Read on for an explainer on the term, plus a general overview of the complex appellation system in France.
Location, Location, Location
Most countries organize their appellation systems in terms of increasing specificity, so it’s not uncommon to find appellations within appellations. Bordeaux, for example, encompasses 65 appellations. To understand how this works, it’s helpful to imagine a target with an outer ring encompassing an area as broad as a province or state. Wine from that ring, or place, can be made with grapes grown anywhere in that region. As the ring on the target narrows, so does the area from which the grapes can come. Some appellations, like the Château-Grillet AOC in France’s Rhône Valley, encompass a single vineyard.
In most places, the smaller and more specific an appellation, the more prestigious its wines are considered. This is partly due to the stringency of the regulations in these places.
France’s Appellation System: AOP/AOC
Every wine-producing country has its own regional classification system. In France, it’s the Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP). In 1937, France introduced this system, then called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Its name was officially changed in 2009 to reflect the standards set by the World Trade Organisation. Still, you’re just as likely to see either term on wine labels today.
The broadest labeling category is Vin de France. In this tier, the least regulated of the rings, grapes can come from anywhere in France. The next level down is Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), which is a broad regional designation. This category grants winemakers a lot of stylistic freedom, so many producers use this designation for more experimental wines that don’t fit within the stricter regulations of more specific designations. We then move down to the AOP/AOC level, which is even more tightly regulated.
That’s the basic model, and things continue to get more specific from there. Every major French region organizes its classification system a little bit differently, but they all have regional (and usually sub-regional) designations (ex: Bourgogne for Burgundy, or Côtes du Rhône in the Rhône Valley). Then there are specific AOP designations for villages or communes with a proven consistency and quality of wines. Some regions go even further and have ranked classifications for particular vineyards, as is the case in Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne, or for specific châteaux, as is the case on the Left Bank of Bordeaux.
If your head is starting to spin, don’t fret. There’s no need to get mired down in details when you’re starting out. However, it’s worth learning the major regions and the grapes associated with them so that you can more readily discover wine that suits your taste. Once you begin to identify your favorite regions, start to familiarize yourself with the major appellations. As you start to pay closer attention, you might find that you tend to prefer the wines from certain villages—which will make the selection process at a wine store that much easier. Our recommendation: Taste widely and have fun!