In most wine producing regions of the world, there is a government body that attempts to classify wines in order to protect both the producers and the consumers from fraud. This (quasi) governmental entity ensures that the information on the label is correct and can be relied upon by the consumer. Wine must come from the region stated and the grapes and vintage must match (or at least a certain percentage of them) what the label says. In France, there are four main levels of wine classifications.
The highest quality level is the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) followed by Appellation d'Origine Vin De Qualité Supérieure (AOVDQS). At the base level is the Vin de Table or table wines. Table wines make up about 40 to 50 percent of the wine produced in France. There is very little restriction on what grapes may be in these wines or where they may come from. In this article, I want to discuss the third level classification. It is called Vin de Pays (VdP) and is pronounced VAN deu pay YEE. These wines make up about 25% of the wine produced in France and can offer the consumer exceptional quality at an affordable price.
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Vin de Pays means “country wine”. The category was created in 1979 to allow producers to use grape varieties and wine making methodologies not allowed under the stricter AOC standards of the first two classifications. It was seen as a way to allow quality minded producers to have a more marketable wine than one listed simple as Vin de Table. While the regulations are more lenient than AOC rules, they still require the wines to be submitted for approval. The wines must be from a designated geographical region and must contain specified grapes. One of the major advantages VdP wines have in marketing to US consumers is that they may list the varietal on the label, something not always allowed under stricter AOC laws. In fact, these wines are often more highly regarded outside of France where the “stigma” of not carrying an AOC designation is not as strong.
There are about 150 different VdP classifications. VdP wines are broken down in three levels based on geography; region, department and local. The largest level is the regional Vin de Pays. Wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon area are labeled as Vin de Pays d’Oc. This is the largest area of all Vin de Pays wines and covers a large portion of the southern Mediterranean coast of France. Wines coming from the Loire Valley may use the Vin de Pays du Jardin de France. These two VdP’s account for the majority of exported VdP wine. Wines from the southwest are Vin de Pays du Comtè Tolosan. Wines from Provence and Corsica are labeled as Vin de Pays de Mèditerranèe. In the Rhone, wines are known as Vin de Pays des Comtès Rhodaniens. As of the writing of this article, there are three other Vin de Pays under consideration. Vin de Pays de ‘Atlantique (covering Bordeaux and Cognac), Vin de Pays Vignobles de France (a broad designation covering all of France) and Vin de Pays de Gaule (covering Beaujolais).
The regional Vin de Pays are further divided into departmental VdP. The departments correspond to the French administrative departments (sort of like a county in the USA). There are approximately fifty departmental Vin de Pays. The many local Vin de Pays designations are usually named after some local point of interest. These are often demarcated by specific vinicultural terroirs.
In order to label wines as Vin de Pays, the yields of the grapes are limited to 90 hectoliters per hectare (a hectare is about 2.5 acres) for white wines and 85 hectoliters per hectare for red wines. Alcohol levels have minimum requirements; 10% in the Midi, 9.5% in the southwest and 9% in the Loire Valley. Minimum alcohol levels are provided to hopefully ensure a minimum level of ripeness of the grapes. Other rules limit the amount of SO2 that can be used and acceptable acidity levels.
VdP wines are not always inexpensive. Domaine de la Grange des Peres makes VdP l’Herault wines that are some of the best wines, AOC or not, coming from the Languedoc. These wines, available in blanc or rouge, cost upwards of $80 a bottle. These are obviously serious wines that can cellar well for a decade or two.
There is value to be found, however. I have had very good luck buying VDP wines from many of my favorite producers, especially from the Rhone, including Alary, Chapoutier, Lesec, Clape and Pegau among others. I joke that I have great success with the wines from Mas des A,B,G’s. These are wines from different producers making VdP du Gard. Mas des Aveylans, Mas des Bressades, and Mas des Guiot all make wines that retail for under $15 and sometimes under $10. These tend to be blends of Rhone varietals and/or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Domaine la Soumade makes a very good Vin de Pays de la Principaute d'Orange Cabernet Sauvignon (though it also has other varietals) that sells for around $20.
I have enjoyed more than a few wines from VdP Vaucluse. This department includes western Provence from Orange to Avignon to Apt. The wines tend to be made from Rhone varietals (Syrah, Grenache, etc), but often include other grapes.
There are far too many VdP wines to attempt an exhaustive list. If however, you see a wine labeled as such, do not shy away from it. I hope you all go out and try a bottle, and please, let me know what you think.
Loren Sonkin is an IntoWine.com Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.