Understanding How French Wines are Named
The first step toward understanding French wine names is to realize that, in France, the government controls how wines are named, and every wine name is a reflection of French wine law. In theory, you could learn all sorts of information about any French wine just by looking up its name in the French laws. That information would include the general vineyard territory for that wine, which grape varieties could possibly be in that wine, and so forth.
If you were to research several wine names, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, you’d discover that most of them are the names of places — the vineyard area where the grapes for the wines grow. Vineyard location is the organizational principle behind French wine law and the basis for naming French wines.
Terroir is the French word for the set of natural conditions that any one vineyard (or wine region) has — the unique combination of climate, soil, altitude, slope, and so forth, in any one location.
Different vineyards produce different wines.
The locale where the grapes grow affects the quality and style of the wine.
Naturally, then, terroir became the basis of French wine law, and the system for naming French wines.
Privileged versus ordinary French locales
Not all terroirs are equal in the eyes of the French wine law. Some vineyards are very privileged locations, and other vineyards lie in more ordinary territory. The status of the locale determines, to a large extent, the price and the prestige of the wine grown there.
Two basic categories of wine zones exist in France:
Classic wine areas
Newer grape growing and winemaking areas
Every vineyard in France lies within one type of wine zone or the other — or sometimes, both. Where classic zones and newer areas overlap, a winemaker can use either area’s name for the wine, provided that he follows the rules governing the production of the wine whose name he uses.
These rules are stricter for vineyards in the classic areas, and more flexible in the newer areas. For example, winemakers in a classic zone have less choice of what grape variety to plant. But wines from the classic areas are generally more prestigious.
Smaller regions are more exclusive
Where territories overlap, a winemaker generally chooses the name that represents the smallest, most specific terroir for which the vineyard is eligible. This is true for several reasons:
The smaller area is more exclusive; fewer people can have vineyards there, and use that name for their wine.
Wines from smaller terroirs generally command a higher price than wines named after larger areas.
Wines from smaller areas are generally perceived to be of higher quality.
An exception to this rule can occur when the name of the larger area is better known and more marketable than the name of the smaller area.