France’s Last-chance saloon?

France's Last-chance saloon?

The proposed changes to its appellation system are good news for consumers looking for quality and accountability.

France is proposing the most radical change to its hallowed appellation d’origine controlée (AOC) system since it was instituted in the 1930s. It could be the start of the much-heralded and much-delayed comeback of French wine in the international market. Or it could just be another layer of regulation in an overburdened wine industry.

I believe it will be the first. The change will be good for French wine.
Here is what is proposed.

French wine authorities say that the AOC system isn’t working. They compare the crisis today to the almost terminal 19th-century phylloxera epidemic. René Renou, who heads up the wine section of INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), and is therefore in charge of French wine, told me, “You’d be surprised how many AOCs have decrees that are empty of meaning, how many are not living up to their reputation.”
Surprised? I don’t think so. Sad, yes.

The AOC system is based on the near-mystical French belief that the identity of a wine stems from the precise field in which its grapes were grown, the traditions of the area and the people who make the wine. This is the very Gallic, and increasingly unsustainable, notion of “terroir.” It’s not the land that is failing, believes Renou, but the people who manage it.

We were standing near some of the greatest vineyards in Burgundy when Renou and I first talked last March of his plan to create super appellations that he wants to call Appellation d’Origine Controlee d’Excellence (AOCE). He is proposing two tiers of French wine: the standard AOC and a new AOCE.

The standard AOC guarantees that a wine comes from grapes grown in a specific place. The proposed AOCE, conferred on the basis of tastings, will go further by guaranteeing that a given wine reaches a standard of excellence, the equivalent of a reserve wine. “The small grands crus in Burgundy will be the first,” he told me, pointing to Romanée Conti in the distance. “Then it will be super appellations like Côte Rôtie, Beaumes de Venise, Pauillac, Saint-Julien. Bigger appellations are not going to get AOCE; their quality is too varied.”

There is one even more original part of the plan. Within appellations that don’t become AOCE, individual wineries can be granted “superior” status, called Site et Terroir d’Excellence (STE). That means an excellent Bordeaux superieur, Château Thieuley for example, has a fighting chance in the world wine market.

Not everybody thinks AOCE and STE will work. “Everything is already in place to make good wines. Why do we want another layer?” Eric Dulong, Bordeaux négociant and former president of the Bordeaux Wine Council, asks. “It should be easy to apply the existing rules. The AOCE is bullshit. We don’t need it.”

I disagree. To me, AOCE is good news for anybody who looks at French wines on the shelf and, finally, walks away. It’s the fastest solution to an almost impossible problem. Ideally, the old AOC system should be reformed. But there are 300,000 people who make a living from wine in France. The minute you suggest massive change here, farmers will be dumping grapes on the Champs Elysées.

If you can’t reform the appellation system, why not bypass it? That’s what AOCE does, in effect.

Let bad wineries wallow in unsold wine. In the French wine lake, the STEs will swim as others sink. In AOCE appellations, Renou’s plan gives small, quality wineries a chance. If Pauillac became an AOCE, it wouldn’t make any difference to Latour, Lafite or Mouton. But it might help Grand Puy Ducasse, Batailley or Lynch Moussas.

AOCE could give France the marketing shot that it needs. Renou wants to offer consumers a clearer picture of what sort of French wine they are buying: “I want the appellations to do what they say and say what they do.”

If it works—and it had better for the sake of every bottle of wine and every winemaker in France—consumers looking for quality and accountability when they pop the cork might just get what they want. In the wine world that is revolutionary.

The plan is to get the AOCEs into place for the 2005 harvest, an incredibly short timetable.
But the AOCEs can only be the beginning of France’s return to the world marketplace. It still leaves the problem of varietal labeling. Europe’s insistence on terroir over grape variety may have romantic, historical interest. That leaves many of us cold when it comes to buying a bottle of wine. We buy Chardonnay, not white Burgundy.

Of course, while Europe is questioning appellations, America is embracing them, in the form of AVAs. But AVA wines can have varietal indication. Of all the European countries, France is still holding out against varietal labeling for appellation wines. I believe this is wrong. Varietal labeling has to be the next stage. Without it, the charge to regain the market will be their Waterloo.

Published on August 1, 2004