The number one question our customers ask us (after where we bought our fabulous clothes and why we look so good ) is what grapes are in our wines. Most people are used to seeing the name of the grape as the name of the wine. A lot of U.S. wines and wines from English-speaking countries are what’s known as single varietal, meaning they contain wine made from a single grape. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, etc.* Some other foreign wines are named that way too, like Pinot Grigio, Brunello, Albariño, and others. Easy, right?
But most of our French wines are blends of grapes named for the place they’re made. Even many of the ones that have only one grape in them. It’s confusing. And it definitely gives off a pretentious, exclusive aura that’s totally not in keeping with these wonderful, accessible wines.
The thing is, the French naming system is one facet of a regulatory administration that aims to provide consistency and quality. While it’s not necessarily easy to understand, think of it as consumer protection, French style. We don’t know all the ins and outs of how it developed, but we’ll try to give an explanation and use a few of our wines to illustrate how it works.
World War I devastated wine production in France, and its aftermath led to a general agreement that some sort of regulatory body was needed – not only to ensure quality, but to preserve the grapes and winemaking traditions and techniques that made the wines so good to begin with. The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) came into being in the 1930s. The aim was to classify the wine-producing regions of France and decide which grapes grew best and made the best wines in each region. The AOC also regulated winemaking techniques, developed a labeling system, and decided grape yields and how much wine could be produced under particular labels and designations to maintain quality.
Once you know the code, so to speak, the labeling system tells you a lot about the wine. All wines will tell you the name of the producer and where the wine is made, or at least bottled. In the Southern Rhône Valley, there are five levels of labeling, listed here in ascending order of quality and decreasing order of yield (amount of wine per acre of land):
Vin de Table – literally table wine, the grapes can come from anywhere, and the yields are high.
Vin du Pays – literally country wine, the grapes must come from France or a designated area within France, and the yields are also high.
Côtes du Rhône – all the grapes come from regions designated by AOC as Côtes du Rhône, and the wine is made in a village that is allowed to use that designation. There are sub-regions within the Côtes du Rhône, such as Côtes du Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon. Yields are lower than Vin de Table and Vin du Pays.
Côtes du Rhône Villages – all the grapes are grown in a particular village that is allowed to call itself Côtes du Rhône Villages, and you may or may not see the actual name of the village included in the designation (such as Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne). Yields are lower than Côtes du Rhône. The AOC elevates villages to this level once they demonstrate consistently good production. Land not used for Villages production can be used for Côtes du Rhône or Vin du Pays wines.
Cru – the highest designation in this region. You’ll see just the name of the village (such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres) on the label along with the producer. The village producers have to have demonstrated many years of consistently excellent production, and also have to agree on strict yield limitations from only the best land for grape production. Once the village becomes a cru, it no longer makes Côtes du Rhône Villages wines, but can make Côtes du Rhône or Vin du Pays wines on land not used for cru production.
So when you see AOC and then Côtes du Rhône or a higher designation, you know that there’s a fairly rigid definition of what went into that wine, how it’s made, and its quality. Here are some examples from fabulous first vine selections:
1) Cave la Vinsobraise Vinsobres Diamant Noir 2005, Appellation Vinsobres Contrôlée. This is a cru wine from Vinsobres made by the cooperative winery. The AOC cru rules for this village require red wines to be at least 50% Grenache and 25% Syrah, with other specified grapes making up the balance if necessary. The Diamant Noir is 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, from vines at least 30 years old, and not aged in oak. Vinsobres was elevated to cru in 2006 and its 2005 vintages were eligible for cru status. So in 2004, back when the village had a Côtes du Rhône Villages designation, the wine was labeled as Cave la Vinsobraise Côtes du Rhône Villages Vinsobres.
2) Domaine Fond Croze Vincent de Catari Côtes du Rhône Villages. Fond Croze is located in St. Roman de Malegarde, and the Catari is the only Villages wine made by the winery. It’s 70% Grenache, 30% Syrah, and aged in oak. The grapes come from vines in a particular area of the property, and are vinified separately from the others. The rest of Fond Croze’s wines are Côtes du Rhônes except for a Merlot and Chardonnay, which are Vins du Pays, since those grapes (and the higher yields) aren’t allowed as part of the Côtes du Rhône designation.
3) Domaine de Mairan Vin du Pays d’Oc Cabernet Sauvignon. Mairan is located in the Languedoc, and while there are AOC Languedoc red wines, those are generally made from Grenache and Syrah. So the Cabernet Sauvignon, although delicious and well-made, isn’t one of the allowed varietals for naming purposes. Interestingly, this makes this particular wine one of the few we carry that’s actually named for the grape!
4) Here’s a tricky one — Château de Clapier Cuvée Soprano. Clapier is located in the Côtes du Luberon, part of the Côtes du Rhône. Thomas Montagne, the winemaker, likes to add Pinot Noir to some of his red wines in addition to Grenache and Syrah, and Pinot Noir isn’t one of the allowed grapes in AOC Côtes du Luberon. So the wine isn’t labeled as Côtes du Luberon, while his Clapier White, Rosé, and Calligrappe Red are. M. Montagne could have labeled the Soprano as a Vin du Pays (since all the grapes are grown in France), but chose not to because the yields on Vins du Pays are much, much higher than his is for the Soprano. He probably will petition the AOC authorities to allow him to use Pinot Noir in an AOC Côtes du Luberon wine, and if so, you’ll see the new designation on the label.
Winemakers don’t have to follow the rules and can name the wines anything they like including the grape name (as long as it’s accurate). However, they probably can’t put the better local AOC designation on the label. And that means that unless the wine is outrageously cheap, many French people will think twice before buying it because it doesn’t come with the inherent statement of quality that the AOC label carries. With the Soprano, M. Montagne has made an effort to introduce the wine to local restaurants, and business is good.
But that’s not always the case. In the Southern Rhône Valley, people can walk into the local village cooperative, fill up their own containers with perfectly good Côtes du Rhône wine, and pay around one euro per liter. Add another euro for the same wine in a bottle, and you can see that there’s not a lot of incentive, other than curiosity, to try something without the AOC label from the grocery store.
So, is it confusing? We like to joke that French people are born genetically imprinted with all the AOC regulations in their heads. Since we weren’t, we’ve taken some of the guesswork out of the naming convention. As importers, we’re required to have special back labels for our wine. Take a look at our back labels, and you’ll see that we’ve listed the grapes and other useful information. Think of it as our version of CliffsNotes!** Even if you forget everything we’ve just told you, you can always just turn that bottle around to get enough info to pass the final exam
After all that, here’s a really simple recipe. Believe it or not, it came from Parade magazine many years ago. So long ago we can’t even remember who wrote it. (Or for that matter, why we were reading Parade. Maybe there was a photo of food on the cover.) But boy is it good. And simple (we did say simple before, didn’t we?) It’s bell pepper halves loaded up with cherry, grape, or other miniature tomatoes and a bit of garlic, swabbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted. It’s probably good with supermarket produce, but wait a week or two until you get the farmers’ market peppers and early tomatoes, and it’ll be spectacular. Let them cool to room temperature after roasting. Serve them over a bit of arugula and with a little goat cheese, bread, and any of the four wines we talked about earlier. A great summer meal or first course, perfect sustenance while you read those back labels!
*According to U.S. labeling laws, a wine only has to be 85% by volume of a particular grape to have that name, and the other grapes don’t have to appear on the label. So “Cabernet Sauvignon” might only be 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, mixed with any number of other grapes. However, if you name more than one grape, you have to name them all.
** OK, now we really feel old. That’s not a typo. Who knew the Cliffs Notes of our youth had made this sort of dorky attempt at über-trendiness?
Tomato-stuffed Roasted Peppers
4 large bell peppers (red, yellow, orange, or combination)
Between 32 and 48 small tomatoes (grape, cherry miniature pear, etc)
One or two cloves fresh garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt (preferably coarse salt) and freshly-ground pepper
8 basil leaves
Extra-good balsamic vinegar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, and oil a large baking sheet with the olive oil. Cut the peppers in half pole to pole and then cut around the stem and seed core and remove. Cut out any large ribs. With a pin or knife point, prick each tomato so it doesn’t explode when you put them in the oven. Put as many tomatoes as you like in each pepper, being careful not to pile them up too much (each will probably hold between four and six, depending on size). Tuck some pieces of garlic in among the tomatoes, then drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast in the oven until you start to see a bit of browning on the bottom of each pepper, and they’re soft but not melted down, between 20 and 35 minutes.
Just before serving, cut the basil leaves into thin strips and sprinkle over the peppers. Add another dash of olive oil if you like, and perhaps a couple of drops of that really “good” balsamic vinegar (a matter of taste, but we’re channeling Ina Garten here).