Forward thinker

Forward thinker People & Places Articles
  • Monday 1 September 2003

Forward thinker

Pierre-Henri Gagey wants to revolutionise the classification of lower-priced French wines, so they can compete with branded New World offerings. STEPHEN BROOK meets the energetic president of the Burgundy négociant house, Louis Jadot.

Pierre-Henri Gagey strides into the reception room at Jadot with his customary grin etched on his face. There is something boyish about him, though he left boyhood behind long ago. His manner is eager, but thoughtful. Ask him a question and he will pause before giving a considered response. He doesn't dodge questions, but rather gives the impression that he relishes the difficult, the controversial.

At a dinner last year hosted by the Syndicat des Négociants – the influential Burgundian producers' association of which Pierre-Henri Gagey was president until this year – a further side of his earnest personality was revealed. Seated at the head table around him were René Renou, the head of the exceedingly powerful INAO; Jacques Berthomeau, author of a highly controversial report on the future of the French wine industry; the head of the government agency charged with, in the French idiom, the repression of fraud; and the minister of agriculture. Gagey gave a speech which consisted partly of courtesies extended to his distinguished guests, and partly of an impassioned plea for greater flexibility within the French wine industry.

The gist of Gagey's argument is that the AC system (over which Renou keeps staunch guard) is too inflexible, and thus keeps France at a disadvantage when competing with more adaptable New World producers. This applies especially to generic Burgundy, often drab in quality and a less attractive option than a more vibrant and cheaper Australian or South African Chardonnay.

'There are three difficulties with generic Burgundy,' says Gagey. 'Costs of production are too high, quality is variable, and sales are difficult. I accept France's AC system entirely, but the system is closed. In the Rhône and Languedoc you have vins de pays alongside AC wines. But not in Burgundy, where everything is AC. This is excellent, but what do we do if quality is not up to scratch?

'If some of our Gevrey is disappointing, we can declassify it to Bourgogne. But if a generic wine is disappointing, there is nowhere for it to go. You could sell it as vin de table, but the law says vin de table cannot mention variety or vintage on the label – which makes it impossible to sell.

'We are proposing a bridge that will provide a route out of the AC system to another category of wine. Let's call it a vin de cépage de France. Thus if a grower or négociant has a batch of unexciting Chardonnay, rather than release it as a mediocre Bourgogne Blanc, it could be blended with wines from other parts of France, with other varieties, or other vintages. In short, instead of trying to produce a terroir wine, you produce a frankly technological wine. There would be no pretence that it is a typically French wine, reflecting a particular terroir. It would find its way into a brand, which we sorely lack in France.'

Branding france

Ah yes, brands. The hidden agenda, perhaps? That wish to create brands with more lustre than the old warhorses such as Mouton Cadet and Piat d'Or. But wouldn't Gagey's proposed new system encourage growers to opt for high yields rather than work within the constraints of Bourgogne AC?

'No,' he replies, 'because the rules apply to the vineyard, not the wine, so yields and other viticultural practices would remain the same. Normally a grower would apply to have his wine accepted as AC. This new system would give him another option. On the other hand, prices for Bourgogne AC would always be higher, so there would be no incentive to aim for vins de cépage. Frankly, it's an alternative to shooting yourself because no one wants to buy your wine.'

Gagey claims there is widespread support for such a scheme among Burgundian merchants, although some Languedoc producers fear it could undermine their own strong markets for vins de pays. VDP rules require a varietal wine to be made 100% from a single variety, whereas a vin de cépage need have only 75% of any named variety. So a batch of Chardonnay could be blended with Sauvignon or Riesling or anything the producer thinks will work best, from any part of France.

'I can't say I'm enormously optimistic the idea will be adopted, but I am quietly hopeful, since an acceptable vin de cépage blend makes more sense commercially than a mediocre AC wine. If nothing is done, then many vineyards will disappear, because the cost of viticulture is the same for Bourgogne Rouge as it is for Chambertin.'

Persuading INAO to be more flexible is just one of Gagey's campaigns. He has also espoused the cause of a 10-year moratorium on research into genetically modified yeasts and vines, alongside other Burgundian luminaries such as Anne-Claude Leflaive and Aubert de Villaine.

'Yeast is presently more of a danger than vines, as yeasts are closer to being in use, and will impose uniformity on wines. At Jadot we don't want any neighbours using GM yeasts that might endanger our native yeast population and wreck our efforts to produce individual wines.

'INAO is sympathetic, and has forbidden GM products, but our Ministry of Agriculture has not followed this lead. Neither has INRA, our agricultural research agency. But all the top domaines of France oppose GM.'

The Burgundy négociant house of Jadot was run for years by Pierre-Henri's father André, a formidable and dignified figure. André died in 1999, but Pierre-Henri had been in sole charge since 1992. Jadot is owned by the three daughters of the late Rudolph Kopf of New York, but they have left the Gageys to run the business as they see fit. Additional continuity is provided by the presence, since 1970, of the genial Jacques Lardière as chief winemaker.

I bring Gagey back to the global picture by asking him whether he accepts that French wine is in terminal decline.

'I admit we can't compete with New World wines for power and richness. But we, and other European regions, are supreme at balancing soil, climate and grape variety. And France is not doing as badly as some people think. But we are not that good at marketing our wines.'

I offer him the prospect of a French wine industry liberated of all irksome regulations – an industry without any ACs.

'That would be a disaster. Rules are necessary because our system is based on the soil, and we share the soil with other growers. The AC system diminishes our freedom as growers, but it allows the personalities of the wines to emerge. There are clearly drawbacks to the system. There are countless small growers who want their wine to bear the name of their village, but it's a nightmare for consumers to have so many appellations. That brings me back to vins de cépage de France. It's good to have things that are complicated, but we also need to have things that are simple – such as brands. The few brands we have in France – whether Mouton Cadet or Guigal – are very successful.'

Changing the system

This talk of escape routes out of the AC system sounds close to revolutionary in hidebound France. But Gagey and those who think like him know that the system has served the top end of the market – the great growths of Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Rhône – magnificently. They also recognise that it is a marketing nightmare for other regions.

Gagey is right: the proliferating ACs of the Languedoc may do wonders for local pride, but they ignore the problem of how France is to cope with its large volumes of sound, but unexceptional, wine. Most other countries have addressed the problem, but the French are still worrying about their heritage. Gagey knows that unless the French arrive at their own solution, and soon, their lesser wines are sure to be increasingly marginalised.

Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter.

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