How Bureaucrats Are Wrecking French Wine
It's time to throw out the rule book.
Jean-Paul Brun, one of the leading winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, is just weeks away from picking this year's grapes, but he is also dealing with a major hangover from last year's harvest: Most of the 2007 version of his signature red, the L'Ancien Vieilles Vignes, has been denied Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, status.
The AOC designation is the highest in French winemaking. AOCs are geographic zones within which certain types of premium wines are made. Wines produced in these areas are not automatically entitled to advertise their noble roots; in order to claim the AOC imprimatur, they must, among other things, pass a taste test meant to ensure that they conform to the standards of the appellation—that they exhibit sufficient typicité. Two of the three samples of the '07 L'Ancien that Brun submitted were rejected because they allegedly had off aromas, even though they were the exact same wine as the third, approved sample, and I'm unaware of anyone else who has tried the '07 L'Ancien and found it to be anything but delicious. Brun has thrice appealed the verdict and lost every time, and the result of a fourth and final appeal is expected next month. If the original judgment is upheld again, around 5,200 of the 7,500 cases of the '07 L'Ancien will have to be sold as vin de table. That's the lowest classification in French wine and one that permits neither the vintage nor the appellation name (in this case "Beaujolais") to appear on the label, omissions that could seriously impede sales.
It is possible Brun is the victim of an innocent mistake or one aberrant decision. However, this sort of thing keeps happening to talented French winemakers. In recent years, stars like Jean Thevenet, Didier Dagueneau, Eloi Dürrbach, Marcel Lapierre, Thierry and Jean-Marie Puzelat, Marcel Richaud, Georges Descombes, and Philippe Jambon have all had wines turned down for being insufficiently representative of their respective appellations. So they were: They were excellent wines produced in districts that mostly churn out swill. This curious trend comes at a time when much of the French wine industry is in crisis, and the economic gap between good producers and not-so-good ones is becoming a chasm. The taste tastes are conducted by committees made up of appellation insiders, and in any given year, 95 percent to 99 percent of the wines submitted are approved. The evaluations are done blind (that is, the names of the producers are concealed), but in light of all these facts, it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to wonder what exactly is tripping up vintners like Brun. This much is clear: The system for classifying and administering French wines is broken and in dire need of reform.
Controlled appellations were formally introduced in France in 1935. They were, firstly, an effort to map out the boundaries within which various wines, such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, could be made and to keep these names from being used elsewhere. As such, they were also meant to be a form of consumer protection—an assurance that what was on the label corresponded with what was in the bottle. More broadly, creating appellations was an attempt to codify what centuries of trial and error had established: that wine was chiefly a product of the land, that some vineyards were superior to others, and that matching the right grape to the right site was the route to good wine. The aim, in other words, was to give the concept of terroir the force of law. It is frequently claimed that the AOC imprimatur was never intended to be a guarantee of quality, but that isn't true; according to Hervé Briand, an official with the Paris-based Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the people who conceived the appellation system did indeed view it as a quality-control mechanism, and only the finest vineyards were supposed to be eligible.
As such, appellation status was conferred sparingly in the early years. By 1940, there were only between 100 and 150 appellations (precise figures are hard to come by), and the number grew incrementally over the next several decades. Through the 1950s and '60s, fewer than 20 percent of French vineyards fell within AOCs. But in the 1970s, regulators decided that putting more vineyards (and therefore more wines) under the AOC umbrella was the way to ensure continued French domination of the global wine market. This proved to be a disastrous move, one that has completely diluted the AOC concept. There are now 474 wine appellations, encompassing more than 50 percent of all French vineyards and accounting for 45 percent of France's total wine production.
But it isn't just the vastly increased number of appellations that has undermined the overall caliber of AOC wines; it is also the way in which the appellations are governed. The rules vary from appellation to appellation, but they cover just about everything a winemaker does in his vineyard and cellar—from planting density to harvest dates to crop yield. In theory, all these edicts promote quality; in reality, they often serve to undermine it, and that's because of how they are applied and by whom. It is often assumed that the wine industry, like other sectors of the French economy, is micromanaged by bureaucrats in Paris. The INAO does oversee the appellation system, but as wine writer Tyler Colman (a friend of mine) notes in his informative new book, Wine Politics, viticulture is an exception to the norm in France, in that it is mostly administered locally by the winemakers themselves. This arrangement, plainly fraught with conflicts of interest, has had onerous consequences.
Photograph of grapes by Yevgeny Eriskin.