French appellation system faces winds of change

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In a fast changing and market driven environment, the French AOC system is seen by many as the root cause behind the country's declining hold on world wine market share. So when the president of the INAO visited London to defend the system and outline his solutions Ben Cooper jumped at the chance to attend.

It is no surprise that so many books have been written about the Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system and the concept of terroir with which it is intrinsically linked. It is quite simply a fascinating subject.

Terroir - a fusion of human ingenuity, tradition and physical geography known only by a French term because it is utterly untranslatable - is underpinned by the AOC system which since 1935 has been responsible for nurturing and protecting some of the most famous names in the world of wine.

It is also a system that attempts to reconcile the seemingly conflicting forces of public regulation and private enterprise. And in the context of a declining share of the export market and a French wine industry being trumped by sexier, market-aware entrants from the New World, the system has come in for its fair share of criticism from within and without.

So it was no surprise therefore that when Rene Renou, president of France's Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), came to London to speak to the UK wine press, his visit attracted considerable interest. Not least, because reform has been on the agenda.

Those anticipating a revolution or a radical shake-up of the system will have been disappointed. This is, after all, an organisation which is conservative by definition and Renou's rhetoric reflected this. There was much talk of "not throwing the baby out with the bath water" or "killing the goose that lays the golden egg". And some undoubted problems notwithstanding, AOC wine is some goose. The turnover generated annually amounts to around FF45 billion - equivalent to 125 Airbuses or 600 TGV trains. But while Renou proudly expounded the strengths of the system, he was at least prepared to discuss its perceived weaknesses too.
The chief criticism is that it is inflexible and therefore France's premier wine producers and regions have not been allowed to react swiftly enough to new competition. The most glaring example of this has been the reluctance to sanction the use of varietal names on labels.

The second major bugbear is one of quality. If the AOC system is the bastion of high quality French wine, say the critics, the production of vast quantities of extremely average wine as AOC is surely anathema.

The reforms - in the shape of two new decrees - deal with the latter issue but, predictably perhaps, nothing is being proposed to address the former. The decrees themselves, while undoubtedly important for quality control and validation, are the typical stuff of the INAO - technical, rather long-winded and wonderfully bureaucratic.

The first new decree, which passed into law last December, modifies existing regulations regarding the control and monitoring of the winemaking process. The aim of the decree is to harmonise these processes across the board, make them more rigorous and transparent. Under the new decree, AOC Syndicats can divide the granting of the "agrement", effectively the conferral of official AOC status, into two stages, one following the harvest and the full agrement after maturation.

The second decree, expected to be ratified in mid-February, reforms procedures for checking AOC compliance prior to harvest, monitoring such aspects as yield per hectare and viticultural methods.

It has been said that the AOC system is a wonderful promise that is not always kept. Renou believes his prime responsibility is making sure that the promise is kept and there is nothing wrong in that. However, it could be argued that keeping the promise actually becomes less critical if people aren't that interested in what you promised to begin with.

That is not yet the case with AOC wine but clearly communication is an issue and simply ensuring that the rules are adhered to will not be the complete answer. But the real problem for those who want further change is that the INAO is virtually conditioned to refuse the kind of proposals they may put forward. Its prime responsibility is the maintenance and preservation of the appellations which are a part of the national heritage.

As Renou put it: "The idea was not to protect anyone against competitors; it was a philosophy we are talking about and French national assets and wine was considered to be an important element in the French soul. One's soil belongs to the winegrower but the appellation belongs to France. It is one of the French assets."

This is clearly where the forces of commerce and public regulation conflict. What a wine company may perceive as a smart response to a market trend, the INAO is likely to interpret as short-term expediency which could harm the appellation in the long run.

While one could argue that the preservation and nurturing of AOCs should involve giving them sufficient room to evolve from a marketing standpoint thereby keeping themselves viable commercially, it appears that the INAO for now is going to remain focused on its responsibilities towards the maintenance of standards and practices.

So there is not to be a revolution at the INAO. But that is not to say there will not be changes in the French wine industry as a whole. While the AOC is a key area of French wine production, other areas of the industry will also have a major bearing on how France rallies in its battle with the New World. For example, classifications such as Vin de Pays allow for the very kind of product diversification and innovation to which the AOC system is apparently not suited.

While Renou's articulate and profoundly sincere defence of a unique and, on balance, successful system was very edifying, it gave the impression that the French wine industry intends to respond to dramatically changing market conditions by continuing to do steadfastly and resolutely what it has done since 1935.

This misleading impression is likely to be corrected some time in the next month or so when the strategic group set up to study the Rapport Berthomeau review of the French wine industry publishes its findings. Its report will hopefully shed more light on how France proposes to tackle the challenges of a world wine market where she clearly no longer calls the shots.


Companies: Vin de Pays

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