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Sat, Dec 27, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Furor over French wine system a case of sour grapes?


His eyes as intense as his prize-winning wines, Loire Valley vintner Patrick Baudouin is hopping mad. So are 100 winemakers across France, some with reputations spanning the globe, who have joined him in a movement that is exposing deep rifts and flaws in the French wine classification system, and shaping the debate on how best to reform it.

It is a system, they contend, that rewards mediocrity and standardization while at the same time punishing vintners who choose more rigorous, labor-intensive methods yielding wines that are often among the best in their regions, but which are nonetheless rejected by peer tasting panels as "atypical."

The financial repercussions for a winemaker of having a vintage declassified can be disastrous. Without the state-backed certification-of-origin known as the AOC, or appellation d'origine controlie, the market value of a wine plummets.

Add Pomerol or Chateauneuf-du-Pape to the label, to cite two well known AOCs, and prices soar.

The key word in the debate sparked by Baudouin and his like-minded confreres, federated in an association called Winemakers in our Appellations, is "typicity" (a neologism in French, typiciti, as well as in English).

In the eyes of France's powerful wine administration and large-scale producers, "typicity" is a virtue and a necessity, the signature taste that distinguishes one AOC from another, and all of them from non-French wines.

"We have to reestablish a common denominator, a family resemblance, for all the wines in a given appellation," explains Reni Renou, the government's top official directly responsible for overseeing and enforcing the AOC system.

There is no room within the AOC household, Renou told reporters, for overly eccentric offspring, even if they are very talented.

"If a certain wine is excellent, but the average level of the AOC is not, then it is normal for that wine to be excluded from the AOC," Renou. And that, for Baudouin and his supporters, is precisely the problem.

"Typicity has come to mean `majority rule', and the majority in a given AOC" -- there are more than 460 distinct winemaking regions in France -- "is too often overcropping, machine harvesting, artificial yeasts or enzymes, and chaptalization," says US wine importer Joe Dressner, who works exclusively with the small minority of French wine-makers who eschew industrial methods.

Chaptalization is the adding of sugar during fermentation to increase alcohol content.

The local tasting juries instituted in the mid-1970s were designed to weed out wines with obvious defects, and did help to remove embarrassing aberrations that damaged the overall reputation of individual AOCs. But today "the AOC system has become a marketing machine for standardizing wine, a machine that crushes things outside this norm," good or bad, says Baudouin.

One perverse effect of the system is forcing quality winemakers who use natural, non-interventionist methods to break the rules in order to make the best wines possible.

"What I am doing is illegal," says Marcel Richaud, a small-scale vintner in the Cotes du Rhone region of southern France.

The same wines selected by top restaurants in Paris and importers abroad were judged "atypical" by his peers this year and refused AOC certification after he had bottled them.

Baudouin, noted for a sweet, white Coteaux de Layon, also describes himself as a "fraud." Because he refuses to add sugar to artificially boost alcohol levels, in contrast to the majority of winemakers in his region, some of his wines don't conform to certain technical standards.

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