René Renou, the president of the Institut National des Appellations d’Orgine (INAO), and one of the most influential men in French winemaking, has died aged 54.

Renou goes down as one of the great reforming characters in the French wine industry and was overseeing one of the most turbulent chapters in the INAO’s history.

He was in the middle of effecting deep reaching changes, first attempted two years ago, and which had just been introduced early this month.

Recognising that the sheer number of Appellation d’Origine Controllées (AOCs) had become confusing for the consumer, he was attempting to divide the offer in two – a top category to remain as AOC for wines of excellence to be made under very strict conditions, and a second to be known as Appellation Controllée (AC) with more relaxed rules of production.

Commenting on the move a few weeks ago, Renou said it was ‘a long-needed reform that allows us to be in step with the market and consumers. I hope to have it in place by the 2007 harvest.’

Born in 1952, Renou started as a wine producer with 12ha (hectares) in the Loire and president of the local union (syndicat), he became president of INAO in 2000.

After an initial mandate of six years, he was re-elected in March by agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau who yesterday described him as ‘aman of conviction who did a great job for the appellations, first in his own region of Anjou, and than at a national level for the whole of France.’

Renou was a straight-talker and far more open than his predecessors. He was the first to publicly speak about the faults of the AOC system, commenting that it was, ‘conceived for producers rather than consumers’. But while he was aware of its shortcomings, he was also a great champion for its existence, comparing the greatest terroirs to the ‘Versailles of the wine world’ – both unique and inimitable.

‘It’s a great loss for French wine making,’ Patrice Hateau, director of Chateau Pape Clement in Bordeaux, told decanter.com. ‘The INAO is in a period of flux, with many people questioning its very existence. Rene Renou was a great champion for the cause.’

At the time of his death, Renou was in Seoul with Sopexa, the French wine marketing body, attending a conference on the future of French wine in South Korea.

Renou died suddenly on Sunday evening, June 18. He had been ill over the past year, but had recently come back to work. The exact cause of death is as yet unknown.

Written by Jane Anson