Straining at the leash
- Monday 18 August 2008
The ideal of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AC) system as standard-bearer of typicité (like terroir, a word that English struggles to comfortably translate) has been attacked before; but two damning reports in Que Choisir, France’s equivalent Which?, over the last year represent further nails in its coffin.
The nationwide winemaking lobby group Sève (www.seve-vignerons.fr),which has been pushing the establishment for an overhaul and back-to-basics approach, saw these reports as evidence of what they’ve long been saying: AC should be an honest reflection of the hard work and raw materials that go into the bottle, if true site-specific wines are to flourish. Instead, some of Roussillon’s most exciting producers have been pushed outside the appellation framework, just like the Tuscans all those years ago, because of obsolete rules and entrenched views on what the right grape varieties or wine style should be.
Many growers have always believed instinctive creativity should be given free rein to make the best, most unique wines possible from a particular area. Currently, if winemakers want to adopt a more creative approach, they must declassify wines to Vins de Pays (VdP). Two in every five bottles of French wine sold in the UK last year were Vins de Pays, and
Languedoc-Roussillon accounts for two thirds of this. But under new rules, which come into effect for next year’s harvest, AC and VdP will be joined together as
‘wines with a geographic indication’, and a new category of wine – essentially mere vin de table, without geographic indication – will allow producers to create cross - regional brands along New World lines.
And here’s the dilemma: as a Sève spokesman
says, ‘table wines aren’t the future’. Changes to the existing wine hierarchy were only recently revealed; the appellation authorities concentrated first on structural reforms covering issues such as producer auditing. By establishing various Organismes de Défense et de Gestion (ODG), the plan is to replace the old syndicats (growers’ unions) and
tasting assessment by which AC wines are ratified. Initially, independent growers with no political voice were alarmed saying it could end up as another technocratic nightmare without solid foundations. But in theory, the right to a quality seal will be judged on broader
criteria such as vineyard site, winery hygiene and hopefully, just good wines, whatever varieties or style. The muchcriticised subjective tastings, though, look set to stay, prompting fresh concern. ‘We’re not sure yet if it’s going in the right direction,’ saysCollioure AC president Marc Parcé of Domaine de la Rectorie. ‘We must avoid creating carbon copies of the old syndicats with minimum specifications, pulling the level down.’ The untamed French Catalan heartland of Roussillon is a perfect illustration of
this debate, where many are committed to shaping what they see as real terroir wines, which aren’t necessarily AC. A major quandary for the region or just a fact of life? This raises other issues, such as what the quintessential Roussillon red wine style should be, as distinct from, say, the Languedoc. Wines based on oldvine Grenache and Carignan? Or those that must contain Syrah, conform to rigid rules and taste a certain way, born out of committee politics rather than pure quality motives? A tour of leading estates dotted across the Roussillon, from the Fenouillèdes and Agly valley to Les Aspres and Collioure, shows there is light at the end of the tunnel. The Côtes du Roussillon Villages (CdRV) appellation includes 32 villages in the region’s northern flank north of the River Têt, a somewhat arbitrary ‘border’ given the variations in geology and micro climate across this area and the implicit ruling that anything south of the river is inferior terrain. Another criticism of Villages AC is the requirement for Syrah or Mourvèdre (see panel, previous growers – for example, in the Maury area, where these varieties are drenched schist soils favour production of first-class Grenache and Carignan fruit – must label their old-vine blends as Vin de Pays, as they have insufficient or no Syrah. Red Grenache remains the principal variety and, despite vocal supporters, elimination of Carignan continues: 13,000ha (hectares) have disappeared since the 1980s, although it’s still the second-mostplanted vine.
Luc Charlier at Coume Majou stresses that ‘we have the best Grenache in the world along with Châteauneuf and Rasteau,’ and Syrah doesn’t produce great wine in all sites. Arnaud Pelegry at Domaine des Vents in Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet uses VdP ‘at entry-level, to display the varieties,’ yet declassifies his 100- year-old vine cuvées due to the ‘inflexible AC.’ There are several excellent 100% Grenache wines labelled CdRV, officially unauthorised, making the rules a farce. Olivier Varichon at Domaine Vinci in Estagel, who stamps his entire range as VdP, is also concerned about Syrah and ‘style homogenisation… Appellation laws are a typically French absurdity and honesty isn’t the grapegrowing industry’s forte.’
Shades of Brunello?
Yet as Simon Dauré of Château de Jau points out, Syrah is easier to maintain and ‘produces
quality at higher yields… especially for rosé’. Brigitte Bile, at nearby Domaine Depeyre, considers Syrah and Mourvèdre ‘well suited to the Cases-de-Pène area’. Syrah has also made its mark in chalk/clay soils around Vingrau, where Alain Razungles at Domaine des Chênes has ‘planted quite a bit’ at altitude. Cyril Henriquès’ top wine, Les Hauts de Força-Réal, is mostly Syrah from hillside vineyards outside Millas. But others, such as Gérard Gauby, believes ‘Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre are the great varieties of the future,’ though he wants ‘real wine from real terroir,’ and might remove all early ripening varieties. In the end, all this shows up official obsession with variety and type over character as academic. Roussillon excel at: thrilling Mediterranean reds. Gauby isn’t alone in feeling the
opportunity to define the region’s ‘grand crus’ has been missed. He focuses on his name, suggesting sought-after estates are shaping Roussillon’s true hierarchy. Calce neighbour Olivier Pithon is convinced that ‘Roussillon has a big future in quality wines’ thanks to ‘its rich variety of different terroirs’. Tom Lubbe at Matassa looks to the other side of the Pyrénées for inspiration and prefers the popular VdP Côtes Catalanes with ‘more resonance’. Growers in Fenouillèdes, angry this area’s eponymous VdP was shelved, have formed an association; to shape a kind of subappellation.
Bernard Magrez, who has renovated the former co-op cellar in Montner, has dropped CdRV and uses ‘Sud de France’ branding on his Roussillon range. Hervé Bizeul at Clos des Fées is ‘still attached to the idea of a grower working their territory’ and appellation per se; but not in the fashion interests of co-ops,’ as Roy
Richards, part-owner of Le Soula puts it. The four named Côtes du Roussillon Villages sub-zones (see panel, previous page) perhaps illustrate Richards’ point. 2006 vintage data shows it was the co-ops that produced most of the wine declared under these ACs – except in Tautavel, the only one that grew compared with 2005. Quality judgements aside (often good), it’s hard to believe their creation wasn’t partly
because of pressure from powerful co-ops. Joep Graler at Trois Orris sees no point in replicating names that ‘no-one knows outside the region’, and Lubbe called it ‘naïve to
think that, by renaming an area, the consumer will be hoodwinked’. On the other hand, Michel Piquemal at Mas des Clots, lost in the wilds beyond Salses, very charm of AC’ for wine enthusiasts who are interested in site-specific wines. You can certainly find shining distinctive examples from these village zones. Clot de l’Oum’s (Bélesta) Numéro Uno from 85% Syrah plus Carignan is a CdRV Caramany: Eric Monné believes Roussillon should develop more crus, ‘as long as we’re much more demanding on quality andless conservative, not favouring one style and production method’. Domaines de l’Ausseil and Rancy’s Latour-de- France wines deliver plenty of character.
As for Tautavel, among others, there are Fontanel and Jean Gardiès, who reminds
us that ‘the wine has to be good whether it’s AC or VdP. You shouldn’t need it
on the bottle to sell it.’ His sublime three-quarters Mourvèdre La Torre suggests that the trend towards this variety is logical. Côtes du Roussillon Les Aspres AC was established in 2004, after a 10-year gestation, for a wide zone in centralsouthern Roussillon to recognise those left out of CdR Villages. Opponents say it was a compromise. The delimited area covers 37 villages, yet production is tiny, and could be viewed as growers committed to Aspres being fussy, as with Clos Saint-Georges or Domaine Lafage. It’s too early to make definitive judgements but some wines under this label don’t make much of a statement (or offer quality to match their average €10 (£8) price. Certain eminent growers, such as Etienne Montès at Château la Casenove, consider Les Aspres as ‘wrong from the
start, by imposing varieties’.
He labels everything VdP in stoical protest. ‘We should use more Carignan because of hotter vintages, yet we’re told to decrease the amount so they can do a Languedoc Roussillon.’ Laurent de Besombes from Domaine Singla, whose vineyard near Camélas in Aspres backs straight CDR or VdP, says: ‘if the taste matches AC regulations, then fine; if not, I don’t care.’ Newcomer Jonathan Hesford at Domaine Treloar in Trouillas, who has classified as Aspres, says: ‘It may be OK for co-ops but not much wine I can and tailor it to suit customers.’ Collioure AC president Parcé reiterates: is absurd… the terroirs naturally lead
this way.’ status quo, and the place for real terroir wines within it, seems set to rage on. Any changes must be demanding yet flexible on the ground and take a transparent quality stance on appellationbased wine growing, rather than another
committee diktat rubber-stamped in Paris. If a significant number of a region’s best producers, who believe highexpression wines should bear a meaningful opt out or ignore
the rules because they disagree, then the sacred appellation model could lose all credibility.
In a diverse region such as Roussillon there are plenty of growers in both schools, who sell more than half their production outside France to wine lovers who feel they’re buying a taste of the local terrain – whatever the terminology on the label.