Winemaking and viticulture date back thousands of years, whereas wine classification is a relatively recent practice. The wine classification system is addressed to the customer base for a better understanding of the origin of a certain product and, at the same time and in certain cases, it protects virtuous producers by setting rules as well as best practices.
The first historical example is the famous Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, where French Emperor Napoleon III demanded that all the wines be ranked before being displayed at the Exposition Universelle de Paris.
At that time, brokers and wine merchants ranked the wines based on reputation and trading price. Although several wine critics argue that the classification has become outdated, the so called Five Growths – the five châteaux ranking highest at the time – still live up to their high reputation in the fine wine world today.
Each region tends to have different rules according to the different ways in which a wine can be classified: from colour to vinification methods and style, to vintages, grapes and geographical origin.
Below, we have filled out a short overview of the most representative classification systems in use today.
The appellation-based system is perhaps the most famous in the world, adopted to varying extents in the most important wine regions worldwide including France, Italy and Spain in the Old World, as well as New World’s giants like Argentina, Chile, South Africa and the United States.
The appellation system was officially implemented in France in 1935 with the creation of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO). INAO is the body granting the AOC – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – certification to all eligible applicants.
Before that however, Champagne had already made sure that regulations on the disclosure of the origin of the grapes were put in place with regard to sparkling wines labelled as Champagne, as set out in the Madrid Agreement. Such regulation aimed to prevent unfair competition as well as the misuse of this specific appellation with regard to lower quality grapes cultivated outside the region. Today Champagne is considered one of the most famous appellations in the world, regardless of its restricted boundaries.
A specific AOC might refer to an area as large as a region, as well as a specific vineyard or estate: this is the case of famous vineyards Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and Bolgheri Sassicaia in Italy. Small appellations usually identify high-quality wines and the need for an autonomous seal for further distinction from a village or a sub-region, as a reaffirmation of superior quality. The rules that govern appellations not only set out regulations as for place of origin, but also mandate which grape varieties are permitted besides the various winemaking methods: this is to preserve a certain standard of quality.
Producers failing to meet the requirements of a specific appellation, are automatically “downgraded” to the next broader level and so on. As for instance, the AOC “Bourgogne” for Burgundy encompasses the wines that are not included in villages or top vineyards level. This doesn’t necessarily mean the wines in this classification are not good wines: a typical example is represented by the superior quality Sassicaia in Tuscany, not featuring in any good ranking due to the grape varieties chosen by the producer, yet gaining its own recognised seal only decades later.
The most common appellations in France and Italy relate to the name of the village and vineyard.
In Spain, the DO (Denominación de Origen) was initiated by the Rioja wine region in 1925. In Italy the first three appellations, called DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), were issued by presidential decree in 1980: Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano being the first ones, shortly followed by Barbaresco.
Argentina joined in in 1987, with Luján de Cujo and San Rafael being granted DOC status. In 1999, the stricter laws in the country aimed to ensure that detailed information were displayed on the label (such as ageing techniques), in order to make consumers cost-conscious with regard to the expenses covered by winemakers.
South Africa implemented appellation-based regulations in 1973, although these are more focused on accuracy of the label rather than imposing restrictions on permitted grape varieties, crop yields, or other viticulture practices such as irrigation or vine training.
On French wine labels, it’s not uncommon to come across terms such as “Premier Cru” or “Grand Cru”. Simply put, those terms refer to the vineyard, or the group of vineyards, from which the grapes are harvested: in order to receive a certain “Cru” appellation, all the grapes must come from that specific vineyard.
The term itself is not a guarantee of great wine, but rather an indication of the potential of the vineyard. This kind of nomenclature is very common in Burgundy, with “Grand Cru” representing the highest level, followed by “Premier Cru”, the village name and, lastly, the generic “Bourgogne” labelling. Usually, a certain class identifies the position of the vineyard on a slope, with the lower levels being at the bottom and Grand and Premier Crus on the slopes: Grand Crus are often found in between two lines of Premier Crus, to minimise frost risk at lower levels and to avoid temperature leaps at higher altitude.
In other regions classification might be slightly different, with Bordeaux not having “Grand Crus” appellation but ranking vineyards and producers First, Second, etc. Growth, based on the 1855 original classification. In particular, Saint Emilion has relied on its own, slightly different way to classify châteaux since 1955.
In the New World particularly, it’s not uncommon to label wines with a specific grape variety such as “Malbec” or “Sémillon” alongside the producer name. In order to be allowed to do so, each country has set specific thresholds to help customers understand what’s inside the bottle: in some cases, these thresholds apply to grapes, besides region, sub-region or appellation names, too.
In Argentina, the most significant rule implies that a specific grape variety must be stated on the wine label: in such case, the wine must consist of at least 80% of that grape.
Australia mandates a minimum percentage of 85% to allow producers to add the grape indication on their wines’ labels. South Africa and New Zealand share the same threshold, but only with regard to exportation to EU: for other markets the threshold is 75% from the same grape. All the varieties must be stated on the label in order of importance, with Australia mandating a minimum quantity of 5% in the blend for a grape to be mentioned.
There’s no specific law for EU exportation in Chile, with just the minimum limit set at 75%.
While in the Old World the tendency is to award appellation status when all the requirements on grapes, winemaking, vintage and geographical are fully met, legislation in the countries of the New World is slightly different. As a matter of fact, the thresholds described above for each country are likely used also when stating vintage and geographical information on the label.
In Australia, wine specialist auction house Langton’s compiles a classification based on secondary market support over a minimum of 10 vintages. In a similar fashion to what occurred in Bordeaux in 1855, Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine is divided into three categories: “Exceptional”, “Outstanding” and “Excellent”. It is normally updated every five years: the last classification, in 2014, included 139 wines, widely considered the finest of Australia.