Choosing a wine based only on its label can make you feel like an explorer in front of an unknown civilisation. This applies particularly to wines of the old world where the provenance is of the utmost importance; the worst headaches resulting from those from Italy and France.
There are two ways to relieve the pain.
One is to know the highest classification of each country. France was the first to establish a system in 1935, which was followed and copied by most of the countries in Europe. The goal was to determine a set of rules per region (or appellation) to certify its provenance, to limit the yield (the lower the production supposedly the better the quality of the grapes), determine the grapes allowed, and regulate the use of pesticides, vinification techniques, minimum ageing requirement, the labelling etc.
In France this highest classification is “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” (AOC) or “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” (AOP). Italy has DOC or DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), while in Spain it is DO or DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida) and in Germany they have QbA (Qualitästwein) to name the principal ones of Europe.
To be labelled as produced according to these regulations does not necessarily mean that the wine will be amazing, but at least there is a warranty about the provenance and care given to the production.
It is more and more common to have very interesting wines labelled with a more general appellation. Many young vintners who become frustrated by the tight rules of the AOC and wish to experiment with different grapes or techniques, will be classified as “region wine” like “Vin de Pays” or IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) in France for example. This is particularly true in Italy, with the Super Tuscan trend, where some of the most expensive and sought after wines are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).
The second tip for deciphering labels is simple and can be compared to Google Maps. The more general the appellation, the more likely that the wine will be mediocre. For example “Wine from the EU” or “Vin de la Communauté Européenne”, which is the most general appellation, meaning the wine can come from anywhere within the EU and could be a blend of different grapes from different areas. So most likely a very low quality wine.
Then the more you zoom in the better chance of selecting a good wine: from the country, then the region, the village, the domaine or château to eventually a specific terroir. Let’s take “Vin de France” and zoom in to “Bourgogne”. From “Vin de Bourgogne” (the general region appellation), go further in to the sub-region “Bourgogne Côtes-de-Nuits”, to the village “Vosne-Romanée”, and finally to a specific terroir “La Romanée-Conti Grand Cru”. Note that “Grand Cru” is the highest qualification in most of the regions in France and “Premier Cru” is a lesser one, while in Bordeaux “Premier Grand Cru Classé” is the highest, “Grand Cru Classé” being the lesser.
Of course this is a simplification of reading wine labels and nothing can replace knowledge. But it is also why this is such an engrossing topic.
Wine available at www.claret-wines.com
Piedmont with Tuscany make the two most prestigious wine regions of Italy. Within Piedmont there is one appellation that inflames a wine lover, which is Barolo. Here you can find some of the most complex and age-worthy wines of Italy. To be a Barolo DOCG the grapes must come from this prestigious area and to be made only from Nebbiolo. This red and thick-skinned grape is high in acidity and tannins, enabling it to age well. Despite its light ruby colour this is a powerful wine and this particular one, while young, already has smooth tannins due to a very gentle pressing and fermentation in large barrels. As the term “classico” implies, this is a blend of grapes from different plots around Serralunga d’Alba which gives it great balance from a young age. Delicate nose of violet and roses with some wild red cherry and strawberry, and hint of undergrowth. Very smooth on the palate with flavours of red berries, blackberry and chocolate. Very easy to match with a wide variety of food. David Rouault
David Rouault is a professional classical musician, part time wine consultant and full time wine lover, holding WSET Level 3,
Certified Specialist of Wine and Introductory Sommelier diplomas. www.dionysos.com.mo