Languedoc Wine Certifications
AOP (previously AOC) & IGP
For the average wine drinker I think one of the most confusing things about French wine is knowing the difference between AOC & Vins du Pays. In my experience most people think AOC means top quality and Vins du pays lower quality and that’s just not true anymore. And if you have looked closely at a French label since the 2009 vintage you may also have noticed some further changes.
In 2009 the EU standardised the names of the wine categories across each EU country and for France this meant that AOC became AOP. The ‘C’ stands for Controlled and the ‘P’ for Protected and for the consumer not much else has changed. The use of AOC is still allowed and some parts of France have decided to stick with it but Languedoc-Roussillon has moved to the new labelling.
The AOC was formed to protect the ancient wines of France and preserve them for future generations. When you buy an AOC or AOP wine it is regulated in terms of where it grew and the grape varieties used to make it. It must also have ‘tipicity’, a French word meaning the wine tastes and looks as you would expect it to. For instance, if you buy an AOP Minervois it should taste of a Minervois wine and not a Bordeaux, Corbières or something else.
It all began in the late 1800’s during the devastation of the French vineyards by a sap sucking louse called Phylloxera. During this period production of French wines was considerably reduced and this led to the widespread fraudulent sales of “famed” wines and adulteration of standard wine with cheaper wine. In an attempt regulate the industry The French Assembly took the decision to delimit geographical areas and to specify where particular wines must be produced. However, it quickly became apparent that France’s famous wines depended on more than where they were grown and this first attempt to regulate French wines failed.
In 1923 Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer, Baron Le Roy, devised a quality control system that included specified grape varieties, pruning methods, vine-training, minimum alcohol strength as well as delimiting the geographical area where the wine was produced. As a direct result of this, in 1935 a government agency, called the INAO was established and was tasked with creating the appellation d’origine contrôlée system.
Rules for each AOC were drawn up with the aim of preserving the traditional and famous wines of France. They were under attack from a number of directions including fraudulent and false misrepresentation and replanting after Phylloxera raised another danger. If the AOC had not been in place there was nothing to stop people planting whatever grape variety they wanted on any soils. If that had happened France might have lost some of its ancient and historical wines for ever, and the AOC preserved them for future generations.
The AOC has achieved what it set out to do, preserve the traditional wines of France and is therefore a protectionist system and must disallow innovation and creativity. AOC and now AOP, guarantees the wine’s provenance and that it conforms to the AOC/AOP rules but it does not guarantee quality. For instance, it might be an AOP Minervois wine, but not necessarily a good one!
When I first started taking an interest in wine I was told the translation of Vins du Pays was ‘wines from the countryside’ which seemed to infer they were the ‘peasant’ wines of France and would be rustic and simple. I now realise that the use of the word ‘Pays’ refers to a part of France, a region or a department. For instance Vin du Pays d’Oc is a wine from the Pays of Languedoc.
In 2009 IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) became the new name for Vins du Pays in France and in Languedoc that means the wines formerly known as Vins du pays d’Oc are now called IGP Pays d’Oc. IGP is a designation used all over France and there are over one hundred and fifty in existence but the Languedoc range is the broadest and the most successful of them all. It is the figurehead behind which a revolution in wine making has taken place and outstanding success achieved. In the past few years there has been a reduction in the amount of wine produced in Languedoc, however at the same time the amount of IGP wine has increased and now accounts for around half of all wine made in Languedoc.
The success of the old Vins du Pays proved to be a saviour for the region. It was led by a clear marketing campaign that latched onto consumers increasing preference for buying wine by grape variety rather than provenance. In the early days the success was based on what I like to call ‘Vin de Quaff’, in other words simple, fruity wines, named after the grape and at a price that most people can afford. But as the brand strengthened and as wine makers adopted it to label their non-conformist wines, it has evolved to include mid-priced and premium wines too.
IGP producers have a list of 30 grape varieties to choose from and can opt to make a mono varietal wine using just one grape variety, a bi-varietal made from two grape varieties or a blended wine made from three or more grape varieties. As you would expect from a hot region red wine makes up the majority of IGP wines at about 60% of production with rosé and white making up equal shares of about 20% each. International varietals are still the bulk of production with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in pole position and Chardonnay topping the list of whites however Viognier is also popular and because it’s not yet allowed in many appellations nearly all of it is bottled as IGP.
Although there is a lot of flexibility when making IGP there are still strict criteria to adhere to especially where the wine is grown and the label must state if the wine is Régional, Départental or Zonal.
Régional IGP wines in Languedoc-Roussillon are called IGP Pays d’Oc. The grapes for these wines can originate from anywhere within both Languedoc and Roussillon and like many New World wines the rules for growing and making are far less strict and encourage innovation and creativity. These wines are about territory and grape variety rather than the personality of terroir and the art of assemblage. However none of these things are ruled out and the wines still retain a ‘Languedoc-Roussillon’ character when grown in Pays d’Oc due to the climate. The majority of these wines are single varietal which has helped make this the most successful IGP in France with exported volume reaching almost twice as much as Bordeaux.
There are 4 Départental IGP’s, each carry the names of the departments where the grapes are grown; IGP d’Aude, IGP de l’Hérault, IGP de Gard and IGP Côtes Catalanes (Pyrénées-Oriental).
Within the Départental IGP’s there are 23 Zonal IGP’s and only a small percentage of producers label their wine this way. By stating the zone the label accurately pinpoints the terroir where the wine was grown. Zones include some visually provocative names such as Vallée du Paradis found in the heart of the Corbières.
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