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The Surprisingly Short History of French Wine Classification

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Designed to regulate which wines are grown where and how, France’s Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) system seems ancestral and long-established, like a Duke Ellington song or the Golden Rule. In reality, the system debuted in 1937 in response to some very 20th-century problems.

“There were basically two reasons France created the system of controlled appellations: phylloxera and fraud,” says Michele Thomas, the assistant manager of Greene Grape Wine & Spirits in Brooklyn, New York.

For the uninitiated, phylloxera is a vineyard pest that destroyed half of France’s vines by 1895. Production plummeted, so enterprising scammers sold faux French wine to thirsty consumers. These were not quality knockoffs.

“Thin wines were mixed with things like sugar, sulfuric acid and even plaster,” says Thomas. “Products imported from Algeria were sold as Burgundy, wines were made from raisins and grape pressings, and imports were sold as Chablis. It was pandemonium.”

In 1889, eager to preserve its reputation and reestablish a soupçon of order, France passed a law to codify the standards of its wine. Additional decrees further refined production, most famously in the Southern Rhône where, starting in 1923, attorney-viticulturalist Baron Le Roy promoted best practices for making Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

In 1937, France introduced its AOP system, then called Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOC), and never looked back.

“The French took to drawing up Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOCs) like ducks to water,” wrote Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in their encyclopedic World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley, 8th Edition, 2019). By 2008, when the European Union created the continent-wide classification system Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), France had more than 350 carefully regulated AOPs.

Of course, France wasn’t the first or only country to codify the production and place of certain wines. Douro Valley Port and Hungarian Tokaji launched protections in the 18th century.

In Chianti Classico in Tuscany, “it was as early as 1444 that a local regulation was introduced to tell growers when they were allowed to start harvesting,” wrote Johnson and Robinson.

Still, there were a number of reasons French AOPs took off in the 20th century. As the industrial economy evolved, the designation gave consumers confidence that what they were purchasing was both genuine and of high quality. In turn, this allowed winemakers to charge more.

Other wine-producing countries took note.

“Especially in the years after World War II, countries saw the prestige that the AOC system brought to the French wine industry (not to mention the profits) and were like, ‘That works. We should totally do that, too,’ ” says Thomas.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, French wine has long been the belle of the ball.