Appellation – does where from indicate how good?


In wine-making, the soils, aspect, and microclimates  all have a profound impact on the grapes grown. The wines that result from the difference parcels of land are also classified on a sliding scale of quality from Villages, through to Premier Cru, and at the top the famous Grand Crus. 

This has been enshrined in legislation in France for nearly a century. While the Appellation d’Origine Protégée (or AOP) system which strictly governs the wine’s terroir is an imperfect system, fundamentally it is of benefit to wineries and to everyone who buys a bottle of wine. 

But because the Appellation regulations are so strict and so detailed, it takes a long time for any change, no matter how small, to be implemented. This can be detrimental when there is a clear, quality case for change. One example, the 1er cru vineyard of Les St Georges, in the village of Nuits St Georges, has long been thought to deserve Grand Cru status. This has been in discussion for decades and is still no further forward. 

By admitting one additional vineyard site to Grand Cru status there could be cause for others to be considered (Pommard 1er Cru Les Rugiens for example). So where do you redraw the line? These can’t constantly be reviewed and revised, it becomes too messy and confusing if there is no clear and consistent message of origin plus/equals the respective quality. This has been clearly shown by the fallout from the St Emillion classification system in Bordeaux, which is being reviewed and has resulted in demoted wineries trying to sue the board.

Christine works for Maisons, Marques et Domains, leading fine wine importers in the UK, whose portfolio covers some of the most renowned producers and iconic wineries from the New and Old World.

For a growing number of French wineries, these old-world laws have become too restrictive and a block to experimentation and progress. In stark contrast to the New World, where regulations aren’t as prescriptive (and this has arguably been one of their major competitive advantages in recent years), French producers aren’t able to produce and market wines more adapted to current consumer trends, if that deviates from the AOP laws. But there is flexibility outside of the AOP if you are willing to declassify. 

This has seen a growing number of top quality producers releasing superior wines under the lesser ‘Vin de France’ category. Historically, this was for entry-level table wine but it allows for more flexibility and creativity, and some exciting new wines being released.

Elsewhere in Europe, it’s the lack of quality-focussed laws that are causing the tension. Wine regions that are heavily dominated by big brands and driven by volume has seen some quality wineries breaking from the region and establishing their own quality rules. 

In 2013, Raventos i Blanc left Cava DO and have begun the process of creating a new, terroir driven appellation called Conca del Riu Anoia. Their decision to do this came from the desire to set a standard in high quality wine production where rules such as the use of only indigenous grapes, ecological viticulture, estate produced and estate bottled fruit and minimum ageing requirements apply which are currently not in place.

Rather than changing the AOP focus – which is protecting the origin of the wine, and being intensely accurate about terroir – flexibility could be shown in viticulture to allow for a certain level of experimentation, innovation and excellence. We know this won’t happen overnight.

I wonder whether there is a parallel future in store for the whisky regions.

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