One of the first things you learn when taking a wine class is how to read. Really, that’s the first thing you learn, how to read a label. You’d think it would be easy enough, I mean, you’ve been reading for years, right? The problem is, as it always is, the French. Like many aspects of French life, wine production is heavily regulated in France and the information on a label must obey specific rules. The confusing part is that these rules vary from region to region based on the way their wine production works. For instance, for terroir-focused Burgundy, wine labeling is structured by a system of territorial appellations.
Basically, every vineyard in Burgundy has an appellation based on its location. The acronym you’ll see on the bottles is AOC which stands for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin). There are around 150 AOCs used in Burgundy, some are very wide, some cover very small areas but luckily, they are organized in levels to make a little more sense.
There are four levels of appellations, the smaller the covered area, the higher the quality (and the higher the price…). To be able to put the name of an appellation on the label, all the grapes used to make the wine must come from within the same appellation, if not you will have to use a wider (and thus supposedly not as good) appellation level on your label.
At the bottom you have the regional appellations that cover wide areas. The basic appellation is Bourgogne Rouge (Red Burgundy) for which the grapes can come from all over Burgundy, and there are sub-regional appellations like Hautes-Cotes de Beaune or Hautes-Cotes de Nuits.
The second level is Village appellation. Grapes for a Village appellation wine must come from a variety of vineyards within the village territory, or a single unclassified vineyard from this village. The label will carry the name of the village (Pommard, Ladoix…) and sometimes the name of the individual parcel the wine came from. Village wines account for 36% of the production withing Burgundy.
Above Village is the Premier Cru appelation (1st growth), they are produced from specified vineyards within a village that are supposed to be of greater quality than those used for the Village appellation. The label will show the name of the village, the Premier Cru status and, if applicable, the name of the individual vineyard: Ladoix, Premier Cru, Les Joyeuses. Premier Cru wines account for 12% of the production in Burgundy.
Finally, the top-most level for Burgundy wines, the Grand Cru appellation (Great Growth). To label a wine a Grand Cru, all the grapes must come from a single Grand Cru vineyard. These vineyards are recognized as the best in Burgundy and there are only 43 Grand Crus accounting for 2% of the surface of Burgundy and 1.3% of its production. The label will show the name of the vineyard and the Grand Cru status, not the Village name: La Romanée Grand Cru (from the Vosne-Romanée Village).
Basically, the higher the appellation level, the rarer the wine, and the more expensive too. Aging potential also usually goes up for Premier Crus and especially Grand Crus. It can make for incredibly pricey bottles but I managed to sneak in a Grand Cru tasting once and it was life changing. I think I briefly saw God. If God was a wine, he’d be a Grand Cru.