10 June 2008

To preserve & protect: a defense of the AOC

[storming of the Bastille]When the oft-benighted INAO denied Jean-Paul Brun the appellation for his 2007 Beaujolais “l’Ancien” (story here, follow-up here, and in French here), it didn’t come as much of a surprise. The lowest-quality French appellations – those that produce oceans of mediocrity – are notorious for this sort of thing, in which low-quality producers (often, but not always, cooperatives) punish their leading lights in order to preserve the notion that their own insipid products represent the “status quo.” Such actions, alongside inexplicably silly lawsuits against those who dare to tell the truth about the appellation, don’t exactly slow the steep decline in the region’s reputation.

Of course, there is an ever-increasing list of very high-quality producers in Beaujolais, names like Lapierre, Coudert, Tête, Foillard, Desvignes…and yes, Brun…that are well-known to enthusiasts. Will they be next under the INAO’s guillotine? It seems likely. The difficulty in France is that unlike Italy, where marketable alternatives for wines that fall outside the DOC system have long existed (and in fact, have been strengthened by updated laws), the loss of a French appellation makes a wine virtually unsaleable. A certain measure of salvation comes from the export markets that know and love these wines, and a little bit more from the ultra-naturalist wine bars and shops that are so currently trendy in France (most of the leading lights of the appellation practice highly traditional viticulture and/or low-manipulation winemaking), but there’s no getting around the fact that this is a hard blow to farmers, most of whom are not exactly bathing in liquid diamonds.

While producers can and do run afoul of the INAO for actual violations of the appellation’s technical rules (grape type and source, alcohol level, residual sugar, etc.), cases like Brun’s are due to the most subjective step in the agrément (the granting of the appellation), the committee of a winery’s alleged peers that tastes wines to see if they conform to the appellation’s norms. One can immediately see the problem here: personal bias cannot help but enter the equation. Petty jealousies matter, especially between penny-scraping defenders of mindless tradition and successful quality producers, few of whom are known for tempered opinions regarding the former group. And especially in France, the showy, somewhat internationalized market in which a “star” winemaker plays often breeds resentment in those struggling to sell their grapes to the local cooperative at ever-decreasing prices. It’s a foolproof recipe for exactly what’s happened to Brun and so many others before him, and it’s somewhat of a surprise that it doesn’t happen more often.

It’s easy, and correct, to call such events a failure of the overly-restrictive theory behind the legally-defined appellation as practiced in France. Some think that the solution is to strip appellations of all non-geographic restrictions. Thus, a Beaujolais could be any wine that came from within the confines of Beaujolais, no matter the grape, color, or form. This would bring French wine law into accord with most New World laws, and let the market rule the future. Others favor less extreme measures, but still advocate the elimination of many restrictions and prescriptions in appellation law.

I think this is a mistake.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, people have the wrong idea about the purpose of a legally-defined appellation. Blame for this can be laid squarely at the feet of generations of French winemakers who have promoted it as the top element in a hierarchy, or as a guarantor of quality. It is neither of those things (which makes Italy’s codification of this notion in their allegedly superior DOCG designation – the “G” stands for “garantita,” or “guaranteed,” – preposterous on its face).

A legally-defined appellation has nothing whatsoever to do with quality, and the only thing it guarantees is identity; that is, a product that carries an appellation must have the properties defined by that appellation, whether it be wine (Vosne-Romanée), cheese (Roquefort), or chicken (poulet de Bresse). The granting of a Bordeaux AOC does not mean that a given wine is good, it means that it satisfies a certain set of objective criteria that have nothing to do with subjective quality. It also does not mean that the wine is better than a vin de table, but worse than a Bordeaux Supérieur or a Pauillac. Yet that is what many people have been led to believe.

[INAO logo]Narrowly-defined appellation law could, and perhaps should, restrict itself to scientifically-measurable, objective criteria. Grapes, minimum (or maximum) alcohol, color, form (still/sparkling/sweet), harvest date, soil type, approved and disapproved viticultural and cellar techniques, etc….and eliminate the tasting panel. But would this solve the problem?

Yes and no. It would prevent inexplicable decisions like the one capriciously denying Burn the appellation for a sample of a wine already granted the very same appellation several times. But it is still a restriction, and a harsh one, on what Burn may or may not do. The question must be asked: why is it necessary to limit Burn’s freedom in any fashion whatsoever?

Libertarians and free-thinking New World winemakers are no doubt shouting “yes!” Here’s a counter-argument: because defined appellations have great value. Not so much for the producer, but for the consumer.

The proper way to think of an appellation is as an indication of typicity. That is, the way in which a wine satisfies expectations as to its character. There is nothing to criticize, and everything to praise, in a labeling system that gives the consumer information about the wine within. Of course, no labeling system is perfect, nor can this information be useful without a context of knowledge, but it’s certainly useful to know that, between a Muscadet and a Margaux, one is much more likely to be appreciated with oysters than the other. Or that, given a red Hermitage of recent vintage, there are consequences to opening the wine before it has matured, consequences (decanting, the right food to combat tannin) that must be dealt with to achieve the maximum possible enjoyment.

An appellation as an indicator of character is as clarifying as the knowledge of the consumer allows it to be. The novice may well find that the Muscadet/Margaux differentiation is enough for their satisfaction, while the aficionado may enjoy the fine-grained differences between Chiroubles and Régnié, or Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. If the appellation is stripped of restriction and meaning, however, such indications cannot be. A Margaux that is, today, a blend of (mostly) cabernet sauvignon and merlot cannot tomorrow be a sparkling viognier, and after that a late-harvest gewürztraminer, without hopelessly confusing customers. Just look at the minor chaos created by simpler confusions, like the level of residual sugar in “dry” Alsatian wines, and multiply that confusion a hundred-fold.

Further, appellations preserve diversity. It is true that not all appellation-preserved wines can currently be assessed as worthy of preservation, but it’s important to remember that things change. As they have, for example, in Beaujolais. The dedicated French supermarket shopper may despair of finding anything worth saving from the region, but the savvy oenophile knows that there’s quality to spare if one knows where to look. That upsurge in quality is, for the most part, a fairly recent occurrence. But had the authorities given up on Beaujolais, no matter how justifiably, and demoted it to vin de pays or worse, would we know the names of the qualitative revolutionaries? Almost certainly not.

[yin yang symbol]In a trend-chasing wine world, appellations codify tradition (which is, after all, what typicity attempts to express). They don’t necessarily preserve quality tradition, but that’s situational; in regions where quality is the tradition, Brun-style problems don’t occur. Appellations mandate the use of grapes that would, in the face of the pure market, be ripped up for ever more endless acres of cabernet, merlot, chardonnay, pinot noir, and the few other well-known, seemingly infinitely-saleable grape varieties that already litter our shelves. They preserve the sharp brine of Muscadet, the delirious spice of Furstentum gewürztraminer, the rocky heights of the Scharzhofberg, the fierce brood of Taurasi, and the rustic smile of Bugey Cerdon, without all of which our world of wine is diminished

So, appellations must be preserved, just as they preserve that which we would otherwise lose. But what they must not be – and this is the critical point – is the final appeal. The crime against Brun is not that he made a wine that the INAO (rightly or wrongly) found atypical, it’s that this finding damaged him. Brun should be allowed to “opt out” of the appellation system and its implied promises of authenticity and identity without suffering economic harm. Current French law doesn’t allow him to do that, but it should. In an ideal world, Brun may choose to make wines within the appellation system, and thus benefit from the information that those designations provide to the consumer, but may also choose to make wines outside that system…wines that are merely Beaujolais by another name, or wines that are as fanciful as his imagination allows (and Brun has quite an imagination). Thus, Brun gains immunity from the jealousy and petulance that would do him economic harm.

One might ask: why a potentially confusing dual system, rather than simply scrapping the most problematic aspect of the agrément, the tasting panel? The argument for the panel’s preservation is that for appellations to have value along the lines that I’ve indicated, they must actually identify typicity. And I don’t know of any way to assess typicity besides tasting. The potential for problems could be greatly mitigated by ensuring that tasting panels are not composed of one’s immediate peers; for example, no one who makes Beaujolais should sit on the Beaujolais panel. This will require some means of assessing qualifications, but certainly France and other countries that grant similar appellations have enough qualified tasters to suffice.

The appellation system has both good and bad aspects. Scrapping it (or hobbling it) is an enticing course of action, but benefits producers (who gain freedom) at the expense of consumers (who lose coherence). And fixing it, in a country as conservative about its traditions as France, seems a venture doomed to failure…or, worse, repair that exacerbates the problem (look at Germany’s attempts to update its own wine law, for example). Instead, why not a minor tweak to the foundation, plus the addition of a worthy counterpart that does not in any way damage the unquestioned marketing power of the AOC? One which heightens the value of the appellation to the consumer and preserves tradition, but which sets the producer free to benefit from both tradition and unfettered experimentation? Everyone benefits. And our world of wine is enhanced.

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