In France, wines from certain areas can label themselves under the local appellation. It’s the French system of looking to ensure quality and standardising the production of famous areas. On the bottle of wine will be written Appelation D’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). It’s a way of telling the drinker that this has been made in a certain way, with certain grapes, in a certain area, and it’s most likely going to taste exactly like you’d expect. It’s effectively as near as damn it a stamp of quality as you can get in product that varies so much between producers and vintages.
So famous appellations? Well, you’ve probably heard of Chablis, Sancerre, Chateauneuf Du Pape. These are all AOCs. The growers that produce these wines will be subject to stricter guidelines in the production techniques, but on the other hand, chances are they’ll charge a tad extra for them. Not much you can do about that I guess.
In Bordeaux there are plenty of AOCs. Keep your eye out on the bottle for the AOC:
It may be a specific named one; such as Pauillac, St Émilion, or Pessac-Léognan.
Or maybe from a more generic AOC; such as Bordeaux Superieur. (Each one means certain standards in wine making have been upheld. As a rule of thumb, the more generic AOCs have less stringent controls, usually.)
Satellites have their own appellation names; Appelation Puisseguin-St Émilion Contrôlée for example.
Within appelations, the wines can be internally ranked. On the left bank you have the growth system. So 1st Growth chateaux are supposedly the best of the best, going down to the 5th Growth chateaux which are the still in the group of the best, just a bit lower down. This is a bit messed up as the last ranking was done in 1855, which was funnily enough, the first one too. Chateaux have changed owners, sizes, shapes, and so on over the years. But people still hold these rankings pretty dear to them, so there you go.
Over on the right bank it’s a bit different. The only place to really make ranking distinction on the label is St Émilion. The better wines are St Émilion Grand Cru AC, and the best wines (as chosen roughly every 10 years) are St Emilion Premier Grand Cru AC.
Don’t let this confuse you too much. It’s just so you can look at the label and sort of understand a bit more what’s happening.
One quick hazard to point out, Grand Vin De Bordeaux is not a controlled term. It means sweet FA. Don’t go paying up for this.
Right, that’s enough on labels.