All French wines are classified according to a very strict hierarchy based on the source and the control of the production. These classifications are an indication of the potential for the quality of the wine. The actual quality may vary so drastically that a good wine of a lower classification is better than some of the higher-classification wines (and visa-versa of course).
AOC - Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée
The top of the line, AOC applies to French wines from precisely specified regions, and with the most rigid controls, specified by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO). The items controlled include the: variety of grapes, density and size of vines, maximum yield, minimum alcohol level, method of culture and vinification. AOC wines will be the most exclusive and, of course, the most expensive wines.
Note. Appellation, on its own, is simply the identifying name or designation of a wine.
A high-quality classification used by only a few appellations, including Côte de Provence (and Grave, Médoc, Saint-Emilion and Sauterne). Originally, Cru Classé was one of the five categories of Médoc wines classified in 1855. [ Cru Classé Label ]
VDQS - Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure
The second-highest classification, "superior quality wine", has strict controls on production and variety of grapes used. The label has a VDQS icon in the lower-left corner, and specifies the type of grape it's made from.
Vin de Pays
A vin de pays is a higher-class table wine, from a particular region of France and with a specific vintage. The vin de pays is controlled primarily for the source of the grapes and also for the density of vines: the amount that can be produced per hectare. The region of a vin de pays can be very large or quite small.
[ Vin de Pays Labels ]
Vin de Table
This is your basic French "table wine", available in small food shops, giant hypermarché supermarkets, and served by the pitcher at cafés and restaurants familiales (family restaurants). Vin de table is sold in 1-litre bottles, either plastic or the classic "6-star" glass bottles. The quality can vary from "sharp" to very good indeed, and the price is often not an indication of the quality.
Table wines are blended from several different sources, and more and more now include wines from other parts of the European Union. The vin de table label shows the alcoholic degree of the wine. The higher-percentage table wines are often smoother.
Individual vineyards often assign categories to their own wines, indicating levels of quality. Since the different wines of a vineyard are assigned their categories by experts, for aiding everyone from us novices to experienced vinophiles, it's a good indication of relative quality. The final taste that suits you, however, could easily transcend categorization; so do your own tasting, and select what pleases you best.
The categories used by the Cellier des Quatre Tours, in Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade, for example, are typical: