In the the 2005 edition of the Dive Bouteille a group of rambunctious, shouting, applauding and cheering vignerons sat and stood in a damp cave for a meeting. They took a break from tasting to hammer out the dangers they were seeing in the AOC system.
I can't remember who it was who stood up, perhaps it was Olivier Cousin from Anjou, but many voiced the same idea. Too many people who worked well and naturally, who made wines that weren't flawed but that weren't textbook, were not being granted the right to put AOC whatever on their label. The system that used to protect real wines had reversed itself. It was a system that had started to eat its own.
With increasing frequency, wines that were naturally made, with no additions, coming from quality terroir, worked tenderly are denied appellation. In fact, looking over my wine shelves, these are mostly what I drink.
Real wines were in danger. Fake wines were awarded status. As the years rolled on the situation got worse. Symbolic was when the Loire Valley hired consultant Sam Harrop (click that link, get the irony?) to help them turn their sauvignon blanc into something closer to New Zealand. You get the picture.
In the last six years this has gotten worse as new reforms in the law (and the ridiculousness of the EU wine laws) have condemned certain grape varieties in certain towns, such as menu pineau (hello Theirry Puzelat) . The result was defection and a proliferation of wines that boasted Vin de Table on their label rather than Chablis.
There's a lovely interview Jules Dressner conducted with Noella Morantin up on the LDM site. Here's a snip that is to the point.
JD-You only bottle as Vin de France as opposed to the Touraine AOC. Can you tell us how you came to this choice?
NM- From the get-go I wanted to make Vin de France, but a lot of people advised me against it. They told me that it was important to defend and take pride in your appellation, and I reluctantly started making AOC wines. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the majority of the AOC wine being produced in my region came from conventional chemical farming and oenological manipulation in the cellar.
These people have appellation sauvignon because they've used an industrial yeast that makes the wine smell like cat piss. If it doesn't smell like cat piss, you don't get the appellation. That was my first big problem with the AOC system.
The final straw was last year when there was an issue with my Boudinerie 2009. It had 0.24 volatile acidity, and even though 0.9 is the level necessary for the wine to be deemed flawed, the board denied me the AOC for this cuvée because of V.A. I reanalyzed the wine myself and provided them with the results proving I was well within the limits allowed, and they told me that it didn't matter, that when they had tasted it they had deemed the V.A too high and I'd have to present it again in order to reevaluate it. So out of principle, because at this point I'd sold all my wine and there wasn't any left, I re-presented the wine and, low and behold, this time the wine was ok and they accorded me the AOC.
At that point I told myself I didn't need these people to tell me what to do. I'm perfectly capable of making the wines I want to make with
Others wanted to fight. Jean-Pierre Amoreau of Chateau Le Puy in Bordeaux took the AOC to court, and won.
Another situation is Olivier Cousin, being sued by InterLoire (local appellation leg) because he rebelliously put his region and his grapes on his label, even as a joke (Anjou pur Breton is the name of the caberent franc involved, Anjou his region, Breton is the old name of Cabernet Franc)...as if playing cat and mouse with the government. This was his patrimony. His right. But the establishment is not seeing it his way.
So, with a heavy heart, after years of thinking that the French system had more good than bad, I've come to accept that the French INAO continues on this path, it is finished. Back in 1935, it's original purpose was to help consumers distinguish between true terroir wines and ordinary ones. There were to be clearly defined rules on soil, grape varieties and methods. In recent years the Vin de Table category was viewed to be more true than appellation wines.
But it isn't just amongst the scruffy rebels, the dissent is reaching even high flying names. Last week I was in Burgundy and stunned that almost every domaine I visited brought up the difficulty for real wines to achieve appellation status unless there is money and influence behind the petition. What to do about it? I discovered that even at the high flying Domaines Roulot, Bonneau de Martray and Ponsot, there was talk about revolt.
I was in the middle of Clos des Monts Luisants, the 1er cru in Morey St. Denis when Laurent Ponsot insisted, "No, no, no! It is the place, not the grape!"
I never think of pinot or cab or malbec. I never think grenache, nor syrah. I think in terms of Gigondas. I think in terms of Beaujolais or Loire Valley gamay. I think in terms of cot (which means Loire to me) and I think of Burgundy (insert appellation.)I think Cornas and St. Joseph. Place matters. Just try drinking Hervé Souhauts gamay called Souteronne (does not get appellation). The wine tastes like the Northern Rhone. It just does.
Originally the AOC had told Ponsot he would have to pull out his aligoté by 2013, because such a lowly grape shouldn't be grown on 1er Cru territory. (more on aligoté in later posts)
Ponsot, who has money and history on his side, won the reprieve and he will continue to label his wines as a 1er Cru Bourgogne instead of Bourgogne Aligoté. He went on to say, if he has aligoté on Corton, he wants to use the Corton appellation. After all, it is the soil, not the grape. And aligoté has history older than chardonnay in the area. I had the feeling if he was forced to put Bourgogne Aligoté on a label, a grape often grown on the wrong side of the tracks (the other side of 74) he might have gone postal.
I had a great meeting with
Jean-Charles le Bault de la Morinière at Bonneau du Martray, maker of extolled Corton and Corton-Chuck. He asserted that if the madness of denying the right to put the name, such as C-C, on a label on good wine continues, he will defect. To hell with the system.
Of course if you're a Ponsot or a B du M your name mostly is so famous you don't need to use the appellation. Others less famous will have a harder time. Sure you might get sales off of the grape name, such as chardonnay, but you very possibly will lose the business looking for a Corton or a Meursault.
In Olivier Cousin's plea to use his place on his label it is a manner of honor, not a matter of law. He wants to put his name and his vintage and his place on his label, it is patrimony.
Soil and grape profiling-- the reverence of place and the exquisite matching of the grape to the soil-- has been France's gift to the wine drinking world. That was the essence of the Appellation system. So, why are they insistent on narrowing their interpretations on a narrow flavor profile? They are destroying themselves.
It might be time for another kind of French revolution.