See both sides of the debate as to whether estates, whose vines were damaged by hail, should be allowed to buy in bulk wine to sell on, as featured as the 'burning question' in the Decanter November 2013 issue...

Authorities in Bordeaux have unfurled a minor controversy by allowing winemakers who lost vines to violent hailstorms over the summer to buy bulk wine to boost volumes.

It marks an unusual twist in a turbulent year. About 350 properties in the Gironde region have lost more than 80% of their 2013 crop to hail, with an estimated value of €70m (£59m). More than 70% of them were not insured. Another 1,400 properties were affected, although less severely.

A warning that thousands of jobs are at risk, particularly in the worst-hit areas of Entre-deux-Mers, Castillon and Libourne, even drew a visit from French agriculture minister Stéphane Le Foll.

After hailstorms, Bordeaux winemakers are typically allowed to rent vines. This year, the administrative body for the Aquitaine region said producers could rent vines until 10 September. But in a one-off rule also backed by the Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB), estates can buy either unfermented grape must or bulk wines until 31 July 2014.

There are several important provisos. For starters, only winemakers who have lost more than 30% of their average production as declared over the past five years can apply, and the volume of grape must or bulk wine purchased must not exceed 80% of that average.

Winemakers can only buy wine from the same appellation as themselves and must source from the 2013, 2012 or 2011 vintages for red wines, and 2013 or 2012 vintages for white.

The château name will not be allowed on the label of wines where bulk wine or must was used, only the term ‘cuvée’ or similar. However, an image of the estate’s château building is allowed. All lots purchased must pass through wine brokers, authorities have said.

So, has a line been crossed? Should producers be allowed to buy in wine from elsewhere to bottle as their own?

Yes

Supporters cite exceptional circumstances. ‘Much of Bordeaux suffered uneven flowering and fruit set even before the two hailstorms, and the ability to buy finished wine is a reaction to this,’ said Jérémy Ducourt of Vignobles Ducourt and also vice-president of Commission Jeune at the Syndicat des Bordeaux et Bordeaux Supérieur.

He believes leasing vines from other producers is preferable. ‘Most people want this option, so they can use their own château name on bottles,’ he said. ‘But, with the best will in the world, there won’t be enough grapes this year to satisfy demand. So, for those growers who really can’t interrupt supply of their wines, there’s the additional ability to buy unfermented grape must or finished wine.’

There is understanding in some parts of the trade, as long as everything is transparent for consumers. ‘If it’s all explained, why not? That’s my personal opinion,’ said Jean-Marc Sauboua, head of winemaking and Bordeaux buyer at Laithwaites/Direct Wines. ‘It’s borderline if you’re someone like [Château] Margaux,’ he said, but added that many of the worst-hit producers, such as those in Entredeux- Mers, operate in a different financial world to first growths. (Additional reporting by Jane Anson)

No

There may be widespread sympathy for producers’ plight, but some believe bigger principles are at stake. ‘Everything hinges on how you interpret the rules,’ Peter Darbyshire, managing director of UK-based merchant PLB Group, said.

‘The British way is to say rules are rules and you should stick to them. The French way seems to say that rules are rules unless they don’t suit us. Consumers deserve rules that are stuck to, especially at the premium end of the market. Tamper at your peril.’

In Burgundy, where some regions – such as Pommard – have also lost a lot of crop to hail, producers can buy a proportion of grapes from elsewhere in the same appellation, but buying finished wine is not allowed. ‘Here, there’s a big separation between family wineries and négociants,’ said Thiébault Huber, of Domaine Huber- Verdereau in Volnay.

‘If you want to have more [wine], you have to decide if you want to be a négociant,’ added Caroline Parent-Gros, a producer in Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits. ‘Buying ready-made wine is, for me, something that is not fair,’ she said. ‘Even if it’s for exceptional reasons, if the rules are changed it will create confusion in consumers’ minds.’

Written by Decanter