1960s Archive

The Bordeaux Appellations

Originally Published May 1960

The Whole extraordinary business started, it would appear, about thirty years ago, in the preposterously unlikely little town of Marennes. For Marennes is not only a kind of oyster (one of the best and most expensive of all oysters), it is a low, white, dull, small seaside town in western France, with a great soaring bell tower, a slow, tidal river, the seudre, and a vast expanse of oyster beds, or “parks,” as they are called in French. There is not a vineyard within miles.

Oysters are eaten the year round in Marennes, with no concern for a missing “r” in the month's name, and it was in search of oysters, plus a bit of fresh sea air, that a group of eminent French wine experts visited Marennes one hot summer day well before the war. They had been meeting in Cognac to attempt to put some order into the vast hodgepodge of existing French wine regulations: it was purely by chance, while lunching at Marennes, that they found the key. There they learned that Marennes oysters were protected by certain special provisions of French law, could only come from a carefully defined area of oyster beds, could not be called Marcnnes if harvested elsewhere, and had to carry, when shipped, a special, easily recognizable green label, wired to the crate.

For a number of years thereafter the words Appellation Contrôlée, which now appear on almost all authentic French wine labels (Alsace and Champagne excepted), had to be printed in green; the color is no longer obligatory, but the originally specified green was in honor of that long-ago, half-forgotten, friendly déjeuner at Marennes. There should be a commemorative plaque on the restaurant's wall.

Several of those who were present (the late Sénareur Joseph Capus, the late Gaston Briand) are now citizens of a country where, let us hope, all wines are authentic and all vintages good. They have left behind them, inscribed on French wine labels, these two extraordinarily important words—Appellation Contrôlée—and the generations of wine drinkers will rise up and be thankful to them for it.

All Bordeaux wines, among others, now carry these words, and no Bordeaux wine may be exported from France in bottle without these words on its label. Some wines may be and are shipped by Bordeaux firms without these words, but such either are not Bordeaux wines, or are substandard—they are what are called “non-appellation” wines, may be blends coming from anywhere, even Algeria, Spain, or the French Midi. If they do come from the Bordeaux district, without the words Appellation Contraôlée, they are not Bordeaux wines according to French law, and one will do well to suspect them.

For an Appellation Contrôlée is a French wine name which has been officially defined and protected (like Marennes, for oysters); a wine which carries these words may be passable or good or magnificent; at least it has a right, according to French law, to the name it bears on its label.

It has not been easy, by any means, to establish and define these names on a basis fair to producers and consumers alike; there are still disputes, and revisions arc made almost annually. But the original pattern is an extremely Sound one, and the system in France tends to be more and more widely accepted and recognized.

You will find on your Bordeaux wine labels either the words Appellation Contrôle as such, or with a name inserted between them, as Appellation St. Emilion Contrôlée. The two forms are equally valid. All regional or district wines (those that take their name from a region or district or village, as Bordeaux, Médoc, Graves, Sauternes. St. Emilion, etc.) use the first of these two forms, and all chateau wines (those that take their name from a specific vineyard) use the second. A wine labeled “St. Emilion,” with the words Appellation Contrôlée in smaller type below, must come from the district of St. Emilion and conform to the standards set for wine so sold. But Chateâu Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone. the best of the great St. Emilion wines, and all other château wines from St. Emilion. will be marked Appellation St. Emilion Contrôlée, This means that the French Government guarantees only that these wines meet, or surpass, the minimum St. Emilion standards; the rest is up to the producer and to you. Obviously, the better châteaux would never market a really poor wine under their celebrated labelsȔtheir ancient and world-wide reputation is the proof; but the French Government's guarantee of authenticity goes only as far as the main wine name on the label (if followed by the words Appellation Contrôlée) or as far as the name which appears between Appellation and Contrôlée, whether this name is St. Emilion, for example, or Pauillac, or Sauternes, or just Bordeaux.

The more limiting and restrictive appellations are obviously the more valuable, and a Bordeaux wine invariably carries the most limiting appellation to which it has a right. No wine entitled to the name “Médoc” is sold simply as “Bordeaux”; a Château Lafite could legally go to market as “Bordeaux,” “Bordeaux Supérieur,” “Médoc,” “Haur Médoc,” or “Pauillac” (each being a subdivision of the preceding), but the label, of course, reads Appellation Pauillac Contrôlée. Here. to make this doubly clear, are the prices which a Bordeaux shipper quoted some months ago per barrel of 1957 wine:

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