More and more high-flying producers are joining the Vin de France category as they rebel against strict appellation rules. Benjamin Lewin MW reports...

Holding a cloudy glass of rosé, Henri Milan says, ‘They wouldn’t allow me to produce this in the AoP.’ onerous appellation regulations were the last straw for Milan, who now labels all the wines from Domaine Milan as Vin de France, the category that has replaced Vin de Table. ‘They wouldn’t allow me…’ is an increasing refrain for producers who believe the appellation system prevents them from making distinctive wines.

Wines in France are classified into one of three categories: AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegée, formerly AC), IGP (formerly Vin de Pays) and Vin de France. AoP wines are identified only by the names of their appellations, usually without varietal descriptions; the next level, IGP, comes from broader regions, and may be identified by varietal names; and the lowest level has no indication of origin at all.

Vin de France is a catch-all. Produced at high yields, most Vins de France are low-priced, but hidden within them are top wines, pushed out of the appellation system, that can be every bit as good as the best in the AOP. They can be hard to identify, because origins aren’t obvious – many indicate only the names of producer and cuvée – and while they may seem expensive for this lowly category, they can offer remarkable interest. With only a few high-flying Vins de France, this is a small class, but it’s well worth investigating.

The most expensive Vins de France come from an attempt to mimic fraudulent practices of the 19th century, when Bordeaux was often ‘improved’ with stronger wine from the Rhône. ‘We were trying to decide whether an 1869 Palmer had been treated, and decided to see the effect of making this blend today,’ explains Bernard de Laage, recently retired from Château Palmer. The Château Palmer Historical XIXth Century Blend has 12% to 15% Syrah (from a secret source ‘somewhere between Cornas and Côte-Rôtie’) added to two lots of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Spiciness from Syrah is more evident at the moment than the traditional character of Margaux.

Appellation drop-outs

Conflicts with regulations can cause wines to drop out of the appellation system. In Bordeaux, Jean-Luc Thunevin at Château Valandraud and Michel Rolland at Château Fontenil protected parts of their vineyards against rain using plastic sheeting between the rows. The authorities demanded that all grapes from the protected vines be demoted to Vin de Table. This gave rise to the special bottlings of Interdit de Valandraud and Defi de Fontenil in 2000. At Château Fontenil, where Rolland had protected the best plots in the vineyard, he thought it was so effective – ‘the grapes were considerably sweeter with more advanced maturity’ – that he repeated it in 2001 and 2004. Coming from the same plots, and still labelled as Vin de France, Defi de Fontenil has become his flagship cuvée; a notch below, Château Fontenil is still in the Fronsac AOP.

The most common reason for leaving the appellation system is to use varieties that aren’t permitted. Worried by global warming in the 1980s, Olivier Humbrecht planted Chardonnay in his Windsbuhl vineyard to strengthen his AC Alsace Pinot Blanc. The authorities banned the wine. ‘So in 2001 it was labelled simply Zind (Vin de Table),’ says Olivier. ‘Since 2004 we’ve produced our classic Pinot Blanc again, and the Zind is made only from Windsbuhl.’ A blend of Chardonnay and Auxerrois, it’s identifiable with one sniff as a wine of Alsace. ‘The character of the Windsbuhl overcomes the grape,’ he says.

Vin de France has become a means of protecting disappearing indigenous varieties that aren’t allowed in the AOP. Jean-François Ganevat in the Jura and Comte Abbatucci in Corsica collect old varieties for interesting blends. The best wines on Corsica are Vins de France in Abbatucci’s Cuvée Collection, which includes four wines blended from some 15 indigenous varieties saved from abandoned vineyards. The overall influence is quite Italian as many of the varieties originated in Tuscany.

Many producers in the Languedoc believe its glory lies with old vines of Carignan, often dating back more than a century. But you won’t find cuvées of Vieilles Vignes Carignan in any of the Languedoc AOPs. The authorities’ hostility to varietal description extends to appellation rules that wines must be blended, usually from three or more varieties. So some of the best cuvées of the Languedoc are monovarietals, labelled as IGP or Vin de France, such as Xavier Ledogar’s La Mariole, from 100-year-old Carignan vines.

Seeking approval

To label a wine with an AOP, a producer must obtain an agrément. Reasons for denying approval extend from notes of oxidation, to colour, to the use of new wood, or too much fruit concentration. Marc Angeli had problems with the agrément when he arrived in Anjou. ‘With the rosé it was painful because they said it was not the right colour – it was either too dark or too pale. And they said that dry white wines should not be made in this style; they were too powerful.’ Abandoning the system, all of Angeli’s wines, under the label of Domaine de la Sansonnière, have been Vin de France since 2007.

The agrément used to be a problem only for appellation wines, where ‘typicity’ has always been an important consideration. The point of the Vin de Pays (now IGP) was to allow more freedom with varieties and styles. But now producers are being denied the agrément for IGPs. ‘I have no idea what is the typicity of IGP Méditerranée,’ says Sylvain Hoesch at Domaine Richeaume. ‘It only takes one person who doesn’t share our ideas about maturing wines in barriques for the wine to be denied.’

The move towards natural wines, especially the use of very low or no sulphur, is another force directing producers away from appellations. When the authorities cricitised Patrice Lescarret for some ‘oxidative notes’ in his Gaillac wines, he replied: ‘Who are you to suppose that you hold the key to the sacrosanct typicity? Who authorised you to prevent the consumer from experiencing the real taste of wine? Who taught you to taste? Do not confuse “oxidation” with “very low sulphur”.’

Jean-Pierre Robinot is regarded as somewhat of a wild man in the Loire for his emphasis on natural winemaking. The wines have extensive ageing before release – up to four years in oak for the whites. Some of the wines are labelled under the Jasnières AOP, but the Vins de France may be more interesting, made in a style preceding the evisceration of flavour in the modern era.

French wines are often criticised for failing to innovate to meet competition from the New World. But while the appellation system may stifle creativity, there are Vins de France from unexpected varieties or in distinctive styles representing the personality of the winemaker. The last word should go to Henri Milan. ‘I want to be free, I would like to label my wines as Vin de France Libre,’ he says.

Benjamin Lewin MW writes about classic wine regions. His most recent books are Claret & Cabs: the Story of Cabernet Sauvignon and In Search of Pinot Noir

Written by Benjamin Lewin MW

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Lewin's top 15 Vins de France
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