Assessing French appellations: do AOCs today bear any relation to what their creators imagined?

The time has come to assess a century of rules and practices of the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées in France.
Patrick Baudouin, winemaker in the Loire and a leader of Sève, an association of winemakers identified by terroir, has published an article in the French language section of advocating such an assessment, arguing that the appellation system is part of France’s cultural heritage and that it naturally implies “terroir”, a word impossible to translate, and therefore used in all languages to convey the importance of origin in quality wine, and the need to defend this origin, be it in France or anywhere in the world, for wine or for any quality produce. Despite this, the following question has never been more pertinent than today: in 2007, do the appellations bear any relation to what was imagined by their creators, a group that included J Capus and baron Le Roy? What follows is an abridged translation of his article.

The founding of the Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées in 1935: to organize the defense of terroir winemaking by the elite of winemakers.

J. Capus labored for 30 years to create the legal basis for his viticultural ethics system. Today most people in the system think that the appellations were created simply to combat fraud and tainted wines, they forget that the objective then was to defend fine wines against unfair competition from ordinary wines that laid claim to a noble origin. A law in 1905 had created the so-called Appellation d’Origine, but this law created no connection between origin and mode of production; in the next 20 years most ordinary wines managed to obtain the AO designation. The concept of origin became meaningless. In 1935 the AOCs were created in order to help consumers distinguish between true terroir wines, with clearly defined rules on soil, grape varieties and methods, and ordinary wines.

Roger Deon described the situation as one pitting the aristocracy making quality wines from poor soils against common people making bulk wine in the fertile plains. The law of 1935 attempted to prevent the common practice of labeling bulk wines with an appellation mark that implied a quality and origin that were most often absent.
With the new AOC the issue was to organize and defend quality viticulture, this was achieved by recognizing that geographic origin alone could not guarantee quality, and that one needed to define the production methods for each appellation (surface area planted, grape varieties, yields, degree of alcohol resulting from natural vinification without enrichment).

At the time, the new system was considered viable only if the State was present as guarantor of the heritage and the ethics of the system, with enough independence to resist the influences that could again bring corruption.

The 1970’s: what have the appellations become?

It was clear already in the 1970’s that the AOC system had strayed from the original spirit of 1935. A 1974 article in Progrès Agricole et Viticole as well as a book published in 1975 by Pierre Marie Doutrelant both argue that appellations no longer represent terroir. Many factors explain this: the illegal extension of the AOC areas, huge increases in yields, heavy handed use of oenological technology, consumer fraud, reclassifying of surpluses as AOC, and so on.

How could this happen? The economic success of the AOC system inevitably brought abuses, and the State simply turned a blind eye. Wine in 1955 was made much like it was in 1905, but winemaking techniques evolved immensely thereafter, allowing huge yields to be obtained. At that time the technology was not looking at soil dynamics or terroir, it was focused uniquely on producing as much as possible and then correcting the defects that inevitably resulted from grapes that were diluted and rich in nitrogen. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this (except maybe for the heavy use of pollutants), there is a need for higher volume wines and these techniques can be useful, but not for terroir wine!

The resulting systematic enrichment with sugar or tartaric acid or osmosis, and the use of more productive grape varieties were never debated in the context of terroir-vine-grape-must. Technology then was never channeled toward the improvement of terroir wines. Once again a greedy majority ruled that it wanted to produce more industrial wine and continue to label it as AOC; anyone who insisted on terroir and quality was quickly sidelined.

As a consequence of the industrialization of winemaking, the main criterion for determining if a wine belonged in the AOC system became the so-called “dégustation d’agrément”, the tasting that led to approval, introduced in 1967. It is incredible how such an imprecise and subjective test could become recognized as the prime test for quality! As pointed out in Progrès Agricole et Viticole, tasting is not selective enough; it can reward wines with no significant defects but also with no character. It is a mass selection criterion that leads inevitably to mass production. It can be influenced by error, by illusion, by camaraderie, by economic considerations, by various influences, by procedural faults, by cellar tricks.

Other reasons for the derailment of the AOC system are again the illegal extension of AOC areas in the ‘60s, and the phenomenal increase in yields, from an average of 30 hl/ha in the early 20th century to 50 hl/ha, with some reds hitting 60-70 and many whites reaching 100 hl/ha, not including surpluses. Already in 1934 Capus complained about AOC wines growing to 20% of production, today it is about 50%, as stated by N. Olszak at a conference in 2005. The original intent was to have AOC wines represent the top 10% of French production!

Finally one can blame the absolute power of the unions, whereby the majority of industrial growers dictate their rules right up to the INAO level, under the pretext of their economic success. In such a situation, what weight do a handful of “purists” carry? The press are systematically denigrated as “intellectuals” that have never worked the land, consumer views are arrogantly dismissed, critical winemakers are dismissed as moralist individualists and punished by refusing their wines, easily identified in a “dégustation d’agrément”, the approval for AOC labeling, with extremely serious economic consequences.

The rise of the dictatorship of the growers unions parallels the grouping of the opposition into associations – organic, biodynamic, “natural wine” makers, Union des Gens de Métier, Académie des Vins de France, Sapros, Renaissance des Appellations, Vignerons dans nos AOC, Sève, etc. – or along the lines of magazines like “le Rouge et le Blanc », GautMillau in the 90’s, Revue du Vin de France, and many other currents that somehow represent what Capus described as “winemakers that have decided to produce wine only using quality grape varieties at low yields, with infinite care, planting vines only in the best conditions and spending much more than bulk wine producers”.

In 1995 there came a turning point: consumer magazine Que Choisir published an article titled “French Wine, quality in danger” questioning the AOC system and arguing about its quality and authenticity. The article was based on a comparative tasting of French and foreign wines by “Le Rouge et Blanc”, questioning the whole terroir connection, exposing the systematic use of chaptalization, the high yields.

The situation exploded when the head of INAO himself, Alain Berger, stated that one could often find scandalously bad products labeled AOC, that today half the wine produced in France by volume is AOC, that is was too much and that it was time to put a stop to this. The reaction by the winemakers union was immediate, the union of Burgundy and Bordeaux cried treason, threatened Que Choisir and managed to get Alain Berger fired. But the system was already rotting from the inside.

René Renou: a return to the principles J. Capus

When René Renou was named president of the wine committee of INAO in 2000, he announced his plan: viticulture is heading for disaster, and it has five years to fix things. He had always questioned the way wine is made, and never refused to speak to the “rebels”, but he would tell them that they wanted change too quickly and told them to work with the unions, to make the entire wine sector progress as one. He soon came to realize that trying to make the entire profession progress at the same time, together, was contrary to the principles of J. Capus. AOCs are not about advancing together and mediocrity, AOCs are about distinguishing between terroir wine and industrial bulk wine.

Renou expressed his views in Le Monde in 2005, stating the horrors of AOC wines, and he exposed the union’s practices of protecting the worst producers under a cloak of secrecy and silence while punishing the best. The reaction was predictable.

Renou tried to propose a new high-end segmentation, with the concept of AOCE (the E standing for Excellence), with special status for “Sites et Terroirs d’Excellence”. He managed, despite virulent opposition from the unions, to pass a vote in 2006 segmenting the AOC into two categories, the first oriented toward terroir with high added value, the second oriented toward volume, technology and international market competition. He died shortly after this vote.
Today the reform is advancing, each appellation now has an ODG (organization for its defense and management) controlling it, and the reform must be completed by July 2008, but what is the goal?

While in theory the ODGs are meant to end the hegemony of the unions, in fact they are modeled on the unions. The minority will be recognized, but the majority will still impose its mediocrity with its vote. In the mean time the AOCs are still defined by the same old decrees, and no significant improvements are expected, with the excuse that there is not enough time to make changes. It is not clear where the reform is going, and whether re-segmenting the market is now possible.

Unless the INAO resolutions of 2006 are applied, the reform will fail.

The statistics of the first semester of 2007 brought good news, with exports up, Champagne makers unable to find enough grapes to meet demand, and appellation wines not doing so badly, however these results were not uniformly distributed among all growers. This illusory end of the crisis is used as an excuse to delay any further changes.

As seen above, the crisis has two major causes: firstly, AOC wines have become mostly ordinary wines, with irregular quality and unclear messages to the consumer regarding quality and origin; secondly, terroir wines and winemakers have been harassed by the AOC unions, especially in lesser regions where the pressure to boost production was highest. Ordinary wines have become the competition of AOC wines, just as Capus feared. Consumers often find many AOC wines to be inferior to ordinary wines, with disastrous consequences for the prestige of top wines.

As a result the concept of appellation is almost dead. What works today is brands. Champagne is a brand, so is Bordeaux, all the classed growths in Bordeaux are brands that have very little in common with AOCs, much like some appellations in Burgundy. These brand-AOCs work, combining AOC label with terroir, but this is not what J. Capus or R. Renou intended for the AOCs, as they are not based on any precise geographical delimitation, nor on rigid specifications to bring out terroir, because precisely in these prestigious AOCs there is a routine use of high yields, osmosis, mechanized harvests, chaptalization etc., everything is allowed, or rather, everything is practiced.
In order to succeed, some winemakers have decided to sell on their name alone, more or less outside the AOCs, thereby refusing the leveling mediocrity implied by the domination of the AOC unions.

If the reform continues on tis present path, without a new segmentation of the AOCs, we are just preparing the next crisis that will destroy the credibility of French wine. The new reform does much to improve the quality of ordinary wines, but it does not address the explosive problem of the persistent lying to the consumer about the relation of these wines to terroir. Champagne and Bordeaux continue to function, but for how long will this last, without rules that justify their claims to terroir?

If quality winemaking remains undefined and unprotected, French winemaking as a whole loses its credibility. There is a need for reform in bulk wine, but only quality terroir wine can make France competitive again on world markets, because France cannot compete on bulk.

The segmentation of the appellation system will happen, because the lie about AOCs is becoming too flagrant, and the market will require change. An honest and credible segmentation is urgent. It is urgent for the winemakers who believe in terroir, because without a credible label nothing will distinguish them from normal wine. About consumers, J. Capus already spoke in these terms: “shall we allow the consumer who buys an appellation wine at a price higher than ordinary wine to feel cheated twice out of three times?”. Consumer and press critiques have been consistently met with derision by the wine business. Finally, this segmentation is also urgent for wine merchants, because today they have to invest much energy to make up for the lack of credibility of the AOC labels.
From J. Capus to R. Renou: an assessment of the appellation system?

Can the State truly be the guarantor of this “meritocracy” and impose an ethic, resisting lobbies of all sorts? A segmentation of the market will happen, maybe through branding (as is currently happening for some wines), but branding cannot guarantee respect for procedures. We prefer to believe that it will happen through a renaissance of the ethic that brought about the appellation system, either through the State or through the winemakers themselves, those that are fighting for terroir. But the problem is that terroir wine is the specialization of a minority that has no power in the appellation.

Stop the fighting, organize a complementary segmentation

René Renou advocated this segmentation, as well as Jacques Berthomeau in 2001. It is in the interest of all winemakers, because there need not be any opposition between luxury terroir wines and simpler pleasure wines. Many wineries wish to operate in both segments, but they cannot if they do not have credible means to define and protect terroir wines. IGP wines will benefit from the leadership of luxury wines, redefining themselves as young wines, breaking with the old tired image.

The question is urgent: terroir wines need instruments to define, control and communicate; can they obtain through the current reform (the State, or Europe) what they could not get through the unions?

SEVE, August 2007.

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About Mike Tommasi

~~~EN I live in Provence, around Bandol AOC, on the shores of the Mediterranean. My profession, which has nothing to do with wine or food, allows me to travel a lot, plus I am a volunteer organizer of Slow Food, so I organize food and wine events and I am lucky to have plenty of occasions to sample all the wonderful terroirs of the world. I created this blog as a community outlet for stories and information about wine and food, with a lot of help from my friends. ~~~FR Je vis sur le littoral de Provence, atour de l'AOC Bandol. Ma profession, qui n'a rien àvoir avec le vin ou l'alimentation, m'oblige à voyager loin et souvent ; en plus, en tant que bénévole de l'association Slow Food. Ainsi, j'organise pas mal d'événements oeno-culinaires, et j'ai la fortune d'avoir pas mal d'occasions pour découvrir toutes les bonnes choses issues des terroirs du monde entier. J'ai créé ce blog comme véhicule pour un groupe d'amis collaborateurs qui aiment raconter des histoires sur le vin et le bon manger. ~~~IT Abito in Provenza mediterranea, vicino alla AOC Bandol. La mia professione, che non ha nulla a che vedere con il vino o il mangiare, mi permette di viaggiare spesso e dappertutto, e in più sono un organizzatore dell'associazione Slow Food, quindi organizzo eventi eno-gastronomici e ho molte occasioni per scoprire gli eccellenti prodotti dei numerosi terroir del mondo. Ho creato questo blog come veicolo per una comunità di amici che amano scrivere sul vino e sul buon mangiare.

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