Appellations – Who Needs Them?

I was reading an article on the Littlewine web site the other day, about the group of excellent biodynamic producers they currently stock from Steiermark (Styria), in Austria, and I was struck by one comment, that all of these producers’ wines are by-and-large bottled simply as table wines (Landwein in German), existing outside of the Austrian appellations for the region. This is equally true in many other Austrian regions, Burgenland is a good example, where many of the finest, and certainly most innovative, producers are outside the supposedly prestigious DAC regime.

The phenomenon is far from being restricted to Austria. France has long been at the forefront of appellation rejection. Whilst many other countries in Europe are seeing the same phenomenon (German producers really have embraced the idea recently), taking a look at France is a good way of beginning to explain what is going on.

The appellation system, originally known in France as Appellation Contrôlée, came about in 1935 when the INAO was formed within the French Agriculture Ministry, and in 1937 when Baron Le Roy, a wine producer (and by coincidence a lawyer) in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, proposed a series of rules for producers in the Côtes-du-Rhône. This formed the birth of a system, based of geographical boundaries, which became the template for controlling most aspects of wine production throughout France. This would include rules on grape varieties, ageing periods and so on.

Germany, of course, had a very different system based on a mixture of grape ripeness (Prädikats) coupled with an array of confusing names which sounded like vineyards (though some were and some weren’t). A digression down this path would take us way too far off-topic. In many other parts of Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal and so on) rules came to be developed along similar lines to the French concept.

Such rigid rules in France were supposedly aimed at protecting the consumer, so that if a wine said “Burgundy” on the label, it came from Burgundy, as defined by its many and various appellation boundaries. Such a claim was a nonsense because as well as failing to address quality within these rules, neither did they address fraud. Wine adulteration was ubiquitous, at least until the EEC (and then the EU) more or less curtailed such activities. But maybe not, if we believe the CRAV activists in the South of France.

Whilst the appellation system didn’t address quality as such, it did address “typicity”. Local tasting panels for each region or appellation would assess the wines in order to determine whether each wine was typical of the appellation. As the panels tended to be made up of big-name producers, co-operative winemakers and negotiants in large part, what was “typical” would certainly often exclude innovation, and may well enshrine mediocrity.

Does anyone recall the new appellation of Buzet, in Southwest France, appearing on our UK shores in the late 1980s or early 1990s? If I recall correctly, the only commercial producer at that time was Les Vignerons de Buzet, the local co-operative cellar. There was nothing wrong with their wines, and they represented decent value, but they were not remotely as innovative back then as perhaps they are today, or claim to be.

Knowing the Tissot family in Arbois a little, I became aware of the wine made outside the co-operative in Buzet by Magali Tissot (a cousin of Stéphane) and her partner, Ludovic Bonelle. The red wine in question, from their Domaine du Pech (planted by Magali’s father in the late 1970s), was originally bottled as a Buzet AOC until it was refused the appellation. As a natural wine, it is certainly different to the Buzet norm, but I have never drunk a faulty bottle. In fact, I would say that this wine stood head and shoulders above what the co-operative was producing when the wine was first rejected by the region’s supposedly skilled tasters. One might wonder what we should surmise by lack of typicity? In any event, the wine’s name changed to reflect its rejection: Le Pech Abusé?

Nowadays it is, as I have already said, pretty common for French producers to make wine outside of the appellation rules. This has been dramatically assisted by the replacement of the lowest level of wine, Vin de Table, with the “Vin de France” designation. Vin de France was originally viewed with some suspicion by consumers. It was brought into being largely as a result of pressure from France’s major volume producers (the big producers always have the greatest influence and run the show, pretty much).

The 1980s onwards saw a big expansion in the production of Vins de Pays, a tier (once two tiers) below the AOC (and now falling under the EU’s IGP rules). Vins de Pays were often wines made in a similar region to one or more AOC wines, but perhaps aside from higher allowable yields, the big difference pertained to grape varieties. When Vins de Pays took off in Languedoc and Roussillon they were predominantly a vehicle for planting the so-called international grape varieties in regions where the appellations restricted producers to traditional varieties.

So, even though we did see Vins de Pays made down there in the south with local varieties such as Terret, which might not be allowed in the local appellation wines, the big swell in planting was of grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. It’s fair to say that the south has pulled back somewhat on these so-called international varieties as many producers realise that, as global warming kicks in, there are more drought resistant varieties to play with.

Yet Vins de Pays failed to tackle one issue which the larger wine producers felt was putting them at a disadvantage in global markets. That was regional blending. Remember, this was the time of the great expansion of Australian wine across the globe. Australia was the bright star everyone wanted to emulate, and Australia had no laws in place stipulating that a bottled wine needed to come from a specific location.

Of course, many Australian wines did, with prestigious estates situated in named wine producing regions like the Hunter Valley in NSW or Yarra Valley in Victoria. It was simply that Australia’s larger producers would source wine from wherever they wanted, using any fantasy name they chose. Such a name could point to a particular vineyard site, Jacob’s Creek being a prime example, but the wine didn’t have to come from that site.

If this sounds like a recipe for dodgy dealing, it wasn’t. Jacob’s Creek was, and always has been, a pretty decent commercial wine, and certainly labelled more honestly than “Burgundy” or “Claret”, a great Aussie wheeze for many decades. But where the Aussies really scored was with their top wines. The old “Grange Hermitage” (now simply “Grange”) developed by Max Schubert through the 1950s does still contain fruit from the original Magill Estate, home of Penfolds in South Australia, but the largely Shiraz (with some Cabernet Sauvignon) fruit has always come from other sources as well, some from the vineyards of wider South Australia and a little from out of State.

It was this inter-regional blending which attracted some of France’s big names, but many of these were volume producers who perhaps wished to hedge against the weather and fluctuations in grape prices. It’s possible someone wanted to make a French Grange, but I’m not sure one has emerged, at least in the sense of which I am talking, since Vin de France came into use just over a decade ago.

Vin de France has two possible advantages over Vin de Table for the producer, and these apply equally for the large negotiant and the small artisan. Bottles of Vin de France are allowed to be labelled with both vintage and grape varieties. This was not allowed for “Vin de Table”. Vin de France is, nevertheless, still not allowed to say where the grapes came from (although the producer’s name and address, or at least their postal/zip code, will appear).

Vin de France has been a saviour for many innovative, small, producers, principally for three reasons. First, if your wine doesn’t fit within the stylistic brief of “typicity” as dictated by a regional panel (occasionally out of mere jealousy for your methods and philosophy, because some fellow vignerons are occasionally capable of pettiness) then Vin de France is a refuge, and one not usually a disadvantage to well-known artisans who have a faithful following.

Secondly, as recent vintages have dealt many smaller producers a really poor hand of frost and hail etc, Vin de France has enabled them to purchase grapes from friends in other wine regions. Some producers, like Ganevat in France’s Jura, have developed a negotiant arm, producing AOC/now AOP wines from their own vineyards whilst making Vin de France from bought in fruit. Ganevat’s bought in fruit often comes from Alsace (although not exclusively), but he also uses these cuvées for the wonderful, rare, autochthonous varieties with which the Jura region is scattered and which have escaped the Jura’s appellations. The De Moors in Chablis follow a similar path.

Others, such as fellow Jura artisan Alice Bouvot with her Domaine L’Octavin, have removed all their wines from their respective appellations. Alice’s bought-in grapes (often but not always from Savoie and Alsace) and her fruit from her own vineyards around Arbois are all labelled Vin de France. This is for the third advantage of the VdF designation…bureaucracy. If you are a regional star with a no-compromise philosophy, and especially if you can sell your output with relative ease, then why bother with the form-filling, and with the animosity from those whose methods you don’t agree with and whose wines do not get the attention yours do on the international stage?

Alice is always out

In fact, many producers who reject AOC in favour of Vin de France sell more wine internationally than they do in France, where a more conservative and ultimately less educated (though they don’t think so) wine public is still largely wedded to the appellation as God. It is not unusual to see some French Vins de France made by artisan natural winemakers more frequently in Tokyo, Berlin, Melbourne and San Francisco than in much of France, although there are exceptions. There are plenty of bottles in Paris of course, but they are all hidden under the counter for wine bar owners to share exclusively with their mates.

The UK has been remarkably receptive to “Vin de France”. Of course, it’s not all good news. The whole Brexit situation has turned some producers away from we Brits, mostly because of extra paperwork but occasionally for other more personal reasons (when you have little wine to sell then the easiest avenues to market appeal more). Others, thank goodness, have stood by the supportive small merchants (and of course, Les Caves) who import them, even though allocations may be tighter now. Yet the key to success for these appellation-rejecting producers is new consumers.

Younger wine lovers are less bothered about classic wine appellations, which they sometimes wrongly tar with the brush of fusty conservatism. They base their purchases on what appeals to them, which may sometimes include the packaging, but their critics are way off the mark when they suggest that such younger drinkers are merely slaves to fashion and marketing, and a colourful label (as if your average small artisan has more astute marketing nous than the agency employed by the massive producer, hey folks, surely not?).

So, what is the future of the wine appellation? I think a world where appellations have a role to play will be with us for a long time. Where they work well, they really help the budding wine lover explore a region, and this is as true for Bordeaux as it is for Burgundy…BUT (in my opinion), at the top level. Differentiating Pauillac from Margaux, or Meursault from Puligny, is a worthwhile pursuit for anyone lucky enough to be able to afford the wines of those appellations. It’s just that you can’t tell me that any given wine labelled Chablis is better by definition than any Vin de France emanating from that particular part of France.

I would respectfully suggest that the concept of Appellation in France (and by extension elsewhere in Europe) needs to evolve to remain relevant to new wine lovers and producers alike. If Appellation remains a refuge granting unearned prestige to under-performing wines, then today’s better educated consumers with their fingers on the pulse will simply reject them. This will not only damage dull wines and their makers, but will ultimately damage the reputation of all producers and wines within an appellation.

Appellations need to find ways to include a region’s best (or at least most internationally lauded) producers, should those producers wish to be a part. In some places the horse has well and truly bolted, but in others (Bordeaux, Piemonte and parts of Germany provide examples) there are still producers who would wish for inclusion rather than rejection. Appellations, for all their faults, do nevertheless signal a certain prestige, and acceptance, for many producers.

Not all Bordeaux is fusty and crusty

They need to professionalise their appellation tasting panels to ensure that petty rivalries and overly conservative attitudes no longer prevail. They also need to consider the place of innovation. Is fermenting in a concrete egg so different to the concrete tanks used widely in the 1970s? Is the freshness of ambient yeast strains, the liveliness of a wine protected perhaps by a little carbon dioxide rather than sulphur, and the texture imparted by a little skin contact or an amphora, going to make a wine so atypical that it cannot be admitted to an appellation, no matter how good or exciting it might be?

In Italy’s Chianti Region the DOC(G) rules were modified to allow a number of non-autochthonous grape varieties into the blend of Chianti, even into its “Classico” heartland. Many would argue that in an attempt to placate modernist producers, the authorities allowed a traditional wine to be changed in what many considered a negative way. Did Merlot strip Chianti of its tradition and soul? To cover the arguments would take a page, but many would say that in allowing Merlot in the mix (and in the introduction of new oak barriques), making Chianti “relevant to the modern world” was a bad move. So the arguments are not always straightforward.

How far to allow modernisation and innovation is undoubtedly a question for those who formulate the rules, in the case of French wine the INAO. It probably doesn’t matter a lot to the new consumers, but it is those very consumers who will be the future, who will make or break appellations. Fashions may come and go, but if you make a wine like Muscadet, you may well only remember the last part of that statement. Recovering a reputation can take a generation.

Prestigious wine regions do not feel challenged right now, yet as their wines leap in price, out of the reach of we mere wine obsessives and into the realm of just the wealthy collector, a time may come, sometime in the future, when very few people will know the best wines from the classic regions. If all that remains for younger wine lovers is to get to know a region or appellation through its cheaper wines, then what future do those appellations have? Certainly consumers, robbed of the most prestigious bottles, will only be able to taste wines which may conform to appellation rules, but which have no built-in requirement to be, frankly, any good. In such cases the Burgundian-related adage of “producer, producer, producer” is the best rule anyone can follow.

Me, I just buy any wine that’s good, whether defined by an appellation or designated as a table wine. But then I’m not the kind of consumer appellations are aimed at. However, all is not lost for the appellation as a concept. Despite the rejection of appellation by so many innovators in Europe, the “New World” has begun to embrace it. Canada, the USA, New Zealand and even, to an extent, Australia, have all moved at least in part down a path leading from complete freedom to some appellation strictures, even if it is left to producers as to whether they choose to work within them or not.

That sounds positive, surely? But South Africa, that hotbed of innovative winemaking in the twenty-first century, does provide a different approach, perhaps nuanced, but one that might act as a warning to those whose first thought is not directed merely at making the best wine possible from a unique terroir, without recourse to the constriction of rules for rules sake. It’s a topic which will doubtless provide hours of future contemplation for those of us inside the bubble, and perhaps less so for your average wine drinker, who probably could not give the proverbial two hoots. And that, Mr appellation administrator, is your potential problem.

One of the producers who inspired this article, Ewald Tscheppe (Werlitsch) from Styria

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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