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French and Italian Wine Classification

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | January 09, 2012

Understanding wine classifications is important for the proper selection of wine for a particular occasion. However if a wine consumer selects a wine strictly based on how a wine is classified, there is a good chance that the consumer may be disappointed with the selection. The process of wine selection must focus on the enjoyment of the wine by the consumer, not on the wine conforming to a rule or regulation. Regardless of this, understanding wine classifications is important. A general understanding of classification systems allows the consumer to develop techniques used in the selection and purchase of wine.

Different wine classification systems exist within the different wine producing countries of the world. Some systems share commonalities while other systems show extreme diversity. Also, some systems may favor producers and legislators while creating a confusing state of affairs for the average wine consumer. Regardless of the system, one must remember that the enjoyment of the selected wine is the determining factor behind the purchase.

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Wine classification systems used in France and Italy use a similar approach in their design. They both feature legislation focused on defined regions that produce wines from certain grape varieties being grown under certain conditions. The use of certain procedures throughout the winemaking process is also a feature of French and Italian systems. Following the proper procedures ensures that the resulting wine can be labeled accordingly. This is a stark contrast from other classification systems used throughout the world, in particular the United States.

Before diving into the nuances of French and Italian classification systems, it is important to review a term used throughout the wine industry: Appellation. Wine Appellations are discussed extensively within wine literature. Appellations are used in various--and often strikingly different--wine classification systems. With regards to the wine classification system of the United States of America, an Appellation refers to an American Viticultural Area (AVA.) An AVA is simply a geographical region legally specified by the United States as being distinct concerning the production of wine grapes. Legal rules exist where wineries may use an AVA name in labeling with specific criteria concerning the source of the grapes. Appellations found within French and Italian systems refer to more than a geographical boundary. In France and Italy, appellation systems include definitions of winegrowing regions, procedures for how the grapes are grown and procedures for how wines can be made, etc. When labeling wines for sale, wineries must ensure that they have conformed to any and all rules of the reported appellation. Due to this stark difference, many individuals prefer to use the term AVA when referring to the appellations of the United States of America.

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The French wine industry utilizes an official wine producing region rather than a specific grape variety for wine classification and labeling. Historically this was due to the labeling of wines from a particular town or village. As most wine in France is also blended, a varietal name is usually not included on the label. As time went on unscrupulous wine merchants began blending and selling inferior wines to unsuspecting customers. The solution to this problem came with the introduction of a system known as Appellation d'Origine Controlee. Appellation d'Origine Controlee--or controlled appellation in English--is a system devised to ensure that the quality of the wine is reflected with what is printed on the wine label. As such, the Appellation d'Origine Controlee system strictly defines wine regions as well as the procedures to be used within these regions. Procedures such as specific grape varieties, specific vineyard management principles and specific winemaking processes are all defined for a particular appellation. In addition to the specified procedures, each wine must undergo a blind tasting before the label can contain the Appellation d'Origine Controlee reference. The theory is that if a consumer chooses to purchase a wine from the burgundy appellation, any wine found within this appellation should be of an acceptable quality.

The Italian wine classification system is similar to the French classification system. Both French and Italian wine classification systems utilize a regional approach concerning wine labeling--Italian wines do have more instances of grape varieties being present on the label. However the comparison somewhat fades after this point. This can be seen in the level of the complexity of the Italian system. Rather than simply having an Appellation d'Origine Controlee governing the regulated wine regions, Italian wine legislation has several different and often overlapping rankings. This leads to confusion for both common wine consumers and well-known wine critics! An example of the complexity of the Italian system can be seen in the following statistics. The highest rank in the Italian system is the denominazione di origine controllata e garantita or DOCG. The next ranking is the denominazione di origine controllata or DOC. The lowest ranking is the indicazione geografica tipica or IGT. These 3 systems represent various quality levels. The confusion becomes apparent as a region can have multiple DOCGs, DOCs and IGTs and they can each overlap one another. For example, the Tuscany area of Italy has 6 DOCGs, 4 DOCs, and 5 IGTs. It is also important to note that annual changes in legislature result in the re-drawing and re-classification of these rankings.

The classification systems of France and Italy are not without their faults. By conforming to systems where strict control is placed into the production of wine, some stability in quality has been preserved. However an overall lack of experimentation exists concerning the development of new wine styles. Loopholes do exist that have allowed some clever vintners the ability to experiment, but on the whole conformity is still enforced. Also, the highly complex nature of Italian rankings makes it very difficult if not impossible to understand and use the system when reviewing wines.

One way to view the various classification systems is to measure the success concerning the original purpose. In the case of the Appellation d'Origine Controlee of France, a major flaw exists within the blind tasting quality checks. More often than not the wine tasting is subjective rather than objective. Local experts generally give favorable reviews to their friends in the community. Also of concern is the fact that the tasting usually occurs before bottling and blending. The end result is that there is a chance the quality of the wine will not match the label.

Regardless of the shortcomings and potential flaws of the various classification systems, a general understanding of the systems is required when reviewing wines. For example, if a consumer wished to purchase a red wine, that consumer would know to consider the burgundy appellation of France. This is due to the fact that the burgundy appellation is predetermined to produce red wines. After this point a consumer should refer to his personal experiences obtained from conducting research, attending wine tasting events, receiving advice from friends, information gathered from wine country trips, etc. Keeping these considerations in mind, if a customer wished to purchase an Italian wine, that customer could refer to his experiences rather than strictly observing DOCG, DOC or IGT rankings.

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