As an American consumer of primarily French wines I always assumed that the French system of classifying wines made a lot of sense. By this I am mainly referring to the Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP, formerly AOC) designation, or more broadly the official government-denominated regional origins and the rules that accompany them. However, recently I have realized that this system is more controversial, and potentially damaging to long-term wine quality, than I thought.
First, some context
Sure, the French wine classification system may be a bit intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it it becomes a reliable predictor of what you can expect from a wine. Champagne (with a capital C) is a good example – everyone knows what to expect: a dry or mostly-dry sparkling wine with a high acid base, grown in a certain area, vinified and processed and bottled in a very specific way, and of course heavily marketed. Most AOPs are much less well-known than Champagne (AOP Cabardes anyone?) but a student of French wines can easily scan a wine list without knowing the individual producers and still understand the contours of what is on offer. Also, with their varying reputations, AOPs provide a generic price guide — if you see Champagne on a wine list for $100 you won’t bat an eye, but a little red AOP Touraine for that price would have you sit straight up in your chair.
Presumably the origin of the AOP system, which dates to the 1930s, was to prevent fraud and establish well-defined categories to protect consumers and wine producers alike. The Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (INAO), which is a part of the French Ministry of Agriculture, runs the system and sets and enforces the production and marketing standards. Standards for production, such as allowable grape varieties, minimum levels of ripeness at harvest, etc, vary by AOP. I won’t delve into them here, but the truly curious can easily find the details on Wikipedia.
By their nature, AOPs define marketing categories into which wines fall. This helps consumers identify that they like and what they should consider acceptable prices in each category. The system’s most important theoretical contribution is how it protects quality by carving out ‘exceptional’ geographic areas for winemaking and enforcing standards there that have some roots in tradition.
Tradition, however, is all relative. Burgundy definitely has it — these are some of the oldest vineyards in the world, where the monks of the middle ages labored over centuries to birth a mythic winemaking culture that delivers high quality within a tightly defined category. The terrain is mapped, ranked and subdivided (physically and legally) into hundreds, even thousands, of tiny parcels based on their soil quality, exposure to the sun, and other factors including historical ownership. Largely, wine consumers understand and support this concept.
But what about places like Provence? To paraphrase Dominique Hauvette of Domaine Hauvette in Baux-de-Provence, until the late 19th century the wines of the region were for personal consumption, and what is the point of “protecting” tradition in a region that is so young and should still be evolving?
“Typicity” is a recent concept created by the INAO because they need arguments to defend the appellation system. In my region, wine dates back to 1840: it’s not Bordeaux or Burgundy, two regions with a millennium of winemaking to fall back on. In Provence, vineyards were initially planted for personal consumption. In such, people started making wine here by planting varietals from other regions. It was a question of planting what they wanted to drink.
Nowadays everything needs to have a context and be classified. I think this is foolish because in doing so you’re closing the door on all possible evolution for the future. Wine is where it is today because people took risks, tried new things and things evolved from what we had then to what we have now. In my eyes, the AOC* system is the death of progress and evolution in French winemaking.
– Dominique Hauvette, from an interview with Louis/Dressner Selections, 2011. *Note that since 2012 AOP has replaced AOC, “Appellation d’Origine Controlée”
This is the heart of the issue. The AOPs provide some benefits for producers and consumers, and they definitely lift mediocre wines that wouldn’t have any identity without them. But they also encourage uniformity and limit innovation by limiting winemakers’ options. It is cynical, and actually quite French, to assume that without the government’s protection the (new) winemaking tradition of Baux-de-Provence would be overtaken by international-style Cabernet Sauvignon or some other ‘non-native’ expression of wine. The modern consumer is smarter than this, especially the more passionate fine-wine-seekers that are generally buying the more expensive wines.
As evidence, some of the most creative and innovative winemakers of the moment have voluntarily excluded themselves from the AOC/AOP system. They accept the lower generic classification Vin de Table (VdT) in exchange for freedom from rules about which grapes to grow, how to grow and vinify them, and the like. It takes courage for a winemaker to cast aside the AOP denomination and the benefits that come with it in order to do something different. Many do it, however, and the history of the so-called Supertuscans in Italy shows that it can be a commercial success. There, beginning in the 1970s some winemakers decided to make wines that didn’t conform to the Chianti designation rules, so they coined the term Supertuscan to differentiate their products from the low-quality mass-market wines that would share their new, lower designation of vino da tavola.
In France, this can work too. The ‘natural’ wine movement is a natural fit since these producers are already proud of doing things differently, and their wines certainly aren’t conventional. I think many consumers feel the same way. Many innovative producers, such as Xavier Caillard, already work at least partially under the VDF label, even if this means omitting the vintage year or other basic information from their labels so as not to fall afoul of commercial regulations. The wine list at Le 6 Paul Bert in Paris is stuffed full of VdF wines. Buying these wines requires more knowledge about individual producers, but that’s what sommeliers are for after all.
I don’t advocate abolishing, or even changing, the AOP system because I don’t think it is necessary. Winemakers and the market are starting to speak. As in the New World wine industry, consumers are increasingly recognizing the importance of the individual producers of French wine and placing less importance on the appellation (at least for relatively high-end wines). I predict that more and more adventurous producers will opt out of the AOPs and consumers will become increasingly comfortable identifying with producers (or brands) and less reliant on the guidance of the INAO. The AOP system may eventually catch up, or maybe it won’t, but the locals and tourists who flock to Le 6 Paul Bert for its fascinating wine list certainly aren’t waiting for it.