Innovation & Design

Has French Wine Outgrown the AOC?


Believe it or not, even the French have trouble picking out wine.

Like non-French consumers, our Gallic friends are known to

scan the wine aisle, glassy-eyed, wondering what is what, what

goes well with what, and what is any good at all. Incroyable,

non?

The confusion in choosing a French wine based on the label isn't

new. To combat the problem, the French had the bright idea to

create a Good Housekeeping Seal; in 1935 the Appellation

d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system was born. Since then, it has

become a sort of overarching megabrand. By giving strict

guidelines to the wine industry, for example, the AOC

guarantees that when you buy a Bordeaux, the grapes came

from the Bordeaux region, they were treated in a certain way,

there was a given amount of alcohol in the finished product, and

specific grape varieties were used.

The AOC became a sort of promise of a minimum amount of

quality. After that, making it really good was up to the wine

producer.

Now the system is creaking under its own weight. The French

penchant for classification and paperwork (Dewey must have had

ancestors here) has created something of a self-diluted mess.

Everything from wine and cheese, natural contenders for this

sort of thing, to the lowly apple now sport AOCs. Plus, a shrewd

winemaker can follow the rules and still make an AOC wine that

no one would buy twice. The system ain't broke, but it does

need fixing.

What's pulling the mess into question now is the French wine

crisis. In short, the wine industry's numbers are heading in all

the wrong directions. The world's winemakers' export numbers

are quickly catching up to the once-undisputed king, leaving

Gallic heads spinning. Consumption on the French home front is

down, leaving many viticulturists sitting on growing stocks of

wine. Though winemakers can babble on for hours about the

problems they face, ask them what they think will fix the

problem and you can hear a pin drop.

The message of distress has made it to the top. French

agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau has vowed change.

"The time for reflection is over," he said at June's VinExpo

conference in Bordeaux. "We must act to improve the standing

of French wine on markets at home and abroad."

To act, he said he sees the wine industry working in two

directions. One stressing quality and tradition, the other, in so

many words, chases more of the mass market.

"We must not forget that France can only protect its market

position with quality," he said. "Quality" is the French wine

mantra and seemingly every wine producer across the country

repeats versions of his statement.

Through all the problems, French scientist Philippe Marchenay

believes in the AOC system. He and his partner, Laurence Berard,

literally wrote the book on one of the system's main tenets:

protection of products with terroir, a rather vague

French term that combines words like "heritage" and

"regionality."

It is easy to hear, when Marchenay reels off a list of his favorite

AOC products from around the country, that he recalls the tastes

and regions with each item he mentions.

"An AOC gives you a guarantee that what you're tasting is

making use of the savoir faire of a particular region," he

says, explaining that people are willing to pay a higher price for

this guarantee of quality. "If the consumer isn't interested, he

buys the least interesting stuff and that's it."

In France and abroad, what the AOC is coming up against,

however, is a potential information overload.

Wine is at the heart of the struggle; one of the key components

is sheer numbers. With less than 50 AOC cheeses, for instance,

there is a reasonable chance that a self-respecting Frenchman

can work his way through remembering what's what. With 407

wines, however, it gets a bit out of control, even for those who

are do their best to keep consumption numbers high.

Champagne, a shining AOC success, rode the wave to the hilt

but does it really do much good to classify lesser-known wines?

AOC La Clape, anyone? In France, no one knows what these

wines might taste like; abroad, no one has ever heard of them.

In Paris, a representative at the Institut National des Appellations

d'Origine (INAO), the government body that governs how AOCs

are run, is surprisingly frank.

"The AOC is for a certain number of producers but, maybe, there

are limits to that," says chief spokeswoman Sylvie Serra.

"Eventually, you hit a ceiling. Twenty years ago, this wasn't the

case." Now, the system seems to be reaching its saturation

point, and a handful of AOCs without a market at home or

abroad are in danger of dying out.

"When it's done well, it works," says Serra, who can cite a large

number of AOCs that enjoy up to an estimated 30 percent price

increase thanks to the three letters on their labels. "There's a

diversity of flavor where everyone can find their own favorite

taste. Even someone who is not rich can find something

pleasant," she says.

Is the diversity, which some feel to be bordering on the extreme,

compatible with the international market? "Certainly not," says

Serra, "At the very beginning, the AOC system wasn't necessarily

made with the international markets in mind. Now, we're asking

ourselves how it fits in."

Outside of the country, when French products come up against

the rest of the products in the wine aisle, it gets worse. Major

"New World" wine producers classify the brunt of their wines the

same way: by grape varietal. Consumers enjoy comparing a

varietal they enjoy from Australia to one in the US, Chile or

South Africa. AOCs, on the other hand, tend to be blends of

wine, leaving consumers to wonder why they should bother

taking a risk on something relatively unknown like an AOC

Cabardes.

"[Smaller AOCs] are going to find that they there's a lot more

competition out there," says Elizabeth Barham, an assistant

professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-

Columbia and one of the US's leading AOC experts. "Americans

don't know where these [small-producing] places are."

Barham sees a positive trend in the United States that could be

beneficial, as increasingly consumers are interested in where

their food comes from. "Some say consumers can't deal with

complicated things, but I don't agree," she says. "I see the

American palate becoming more and more complex all the

time."

For part of the solution, Barham echoes the French minister's

mantra. "Once you reach a certain level of quality, that's what

the consumer will reward. I'd hate to see [the French] weaken

their system."

Scientist Marchenay seems to agree. "My kids adore McDo," he

says, somehow conveying a wince over the telephone line when

he utters the colloquial French term for McDonalds, "but they

don't go because the food is good."

The Golden Arches signals a certain known experience. If the

AOC can win back control of its system, consumers will choose

an unknown wine precisely because it has a seal to assure them

of a certain quality of experience.

BIO

Joe Ray is a Paris-based freelance journalist specializing in food,

travel and analysis pieces. He writes for major dailies and

magazines around the world. His work can be found on joe-

ray.com


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