In France, the appellation or AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) is more than just a definition of name or an indication of origin.
The AOC identifies specific criteria for the area, including grape varieties grown, yields, alcoholic content of the wine, and viticultural and winemaking methods, explained Stephane Laborie, graduate student from France who is currently studying at the University of California, Berkeley. He noted that if criteria are not met, such as having too high an alcoholic content, Bordeaux cannot be used on the label.
This heavy-handed authority, which prohibits some irrigation practices and modern techniques like using hail netting, is frustrating, he said. "But on the other hand, it protects wine quality."
The stringent AOC regulations were established in 1936 to protect wine quality following fraudulent practices in the early 1900s in which wines produced outside
of the region were being labeled as Bordeaux. These poorer quality wines caused a significant drop in prices for the Bordeaux producers.
A stark difference between the French and U.S. wine industries is treatment of the customer, an attitude that led to Bordeaux wine classifications.
"In Bordeaux, the consumer is not the master like he or she is in the United States," he said. "In Bordeaux, we try to tell the consumer that ‘this wine is good, this wine is not good.’" Classifications are used to tell the consumer the importance and ranking of the winery and are designed to give the consumer a nonexclusive source of reference, Laborie explained.
Classifications date back to 1855 when Bordeaux’s best wines were to be on display at the Exposition Universelle de Paris, which was similar to a world’s fair. Wines were classified or ranked by wine brokers according to a chateau’s reputation and trading price.
"It is a good marketing system, but on the other side, it is also very confusing," Laborie said. The original classification was a five-class ranking of red wines, limited to wines from the Medoc region on the west side of the Bordeaux region, with the exception of one Graves wine. It included 60 growths of red wine and 26 growths of sweet white wines from Sauternes and Barsac. A growth is equivalent to a winery estate or chateau, he explained, noting that the American definition of a winery doesn’t really exist in France.
Those wines designated premier grand cru are the very best and most expensive wines, retailing around $3,000 per bottle, he added.
Many wine critics say the 1855 classifications are outdated and no longer provide accurate information about the wineries because so few changes have been made to the original list. Newer wineries are included on the Cru Bourgeois classification system, one that is updated on a regular basis.
"My conviction is that it’s a little bit complicated when you don’t know everything about French wine," he said. "And it’s complicated even when you do know it." Few American consumers understand the classifications, Laborie said, adding that a recent survey showed that some American consumers are afraid of French wine.
When asked if the AOC regulations would be modified in the future in light of climate changes and modern viticulture practices, he responded that while some growers would like to have less regulation, most believe that the rules are part of tradition and needed to maintain wine quality. Reforming the regulations would be very difficult.