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Appellations: Time for change?

Andrew Jefford makes the case for modifying current appellation legislation in the face of climate change, increased competition and altered consumption patterns...

Appellations (and their various European equivalents) have a problem. Not existential: they’re a brilliant idea, since they help small producers go to market with a meaningful name. They’re also necessary: value in the wine world is principally based on origin, and appellations guarantee origin.

The problem is the same as you have with your car or your house: appellations need maintenance to work well. And they’re not getting it.

Many French appellations were created in the 1930s. It was a decade of execrable weather, economic depression and political foreboding: life couldn’t have been tougher for growers. Another flurry of appellations arrived in the 1950s: a happier time, but economically difficult.

There were more in the 1980s, as former VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) wines won promotion to appellation status – but by then the best sites were mostly long-acclaimed, and hopeful new arrivals often found the going hard.

In the past 40 years, everything has changed. Economic conditions are benign; fine-wine regions have prospered beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations. For modest wines, global competition is now fierce. Consumption patterns have changed, and the weather, meanwhile, has become warmer for everyone.

Many European regions are benefiting from climate change but there are evident threats, from heatwaves, drought, hail and (paradoxically) spring frost. Everything about most appellations now needs revision, notably varieties and blends, and internal and external boundary lines.

The problem is that change creates losers as well as winners. Losers mean lawyers and legal challenges. It’s all too difficult. So it doesn’t happen. Change tends to power on anyway, leaving legislation looking inadequate.

In Anjou in July 2020, for example, I discovered that a schist-soiled region famed for sweet white wines and semi-sweet rosé is fast mutating into a vanguard region for dry, Chenin-based terroir whites and Cabernet-based reds. Quarts de Chaume may be the Loire’s only official grand cru – but the suite of chic Anjou Blanc parcellaires produced within its boundaries are just as interesting and find a readier market, even though the zone cannot yet speak its name as a dry-wine cru.

Then in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in May 2021, I found a renaissance of the older, ‘forgotten’ varieties such as Vaccarèse, Counoise, Muscardin and Picardan. No more blow-out showstoppers based on centenarian Grenache aged in oak, but instead wines which feature every permitted variety (white and red alike), whole-bunch fermentation for freshness, and some use of concrete or earthenware jars in place of new oak.

Domaine de Beaurenard’s Gran Partita, Domaine de la Solitude’s Vin de la Solitude and Clos du Mont-Olivet’s Compagnons Inconnus all draw on these techniques and ideas. Grenache, meanwhile, is being regarded more circumspectly since its full flavour ripeness implies massive alcohol. Individual vineyard rankings are changing.

There is, though, a key difference between these two regions. Châteauneuf was France’s pioneer appellation – the process got underway in 1894; first drafted in 1923, the rules are wonderfully flexible. Later appellations, including those of the Loire, were less so: the French mania for over-legislating now leaves them hamstrung.

Appellations all across the south of France, for example, desperately need Châteauneuf’s freedom of action to make blended wine or varietal wine as they wish, to call on a wide range of varieties and to modify or change plantings within workably large zones. They haven’t got this freedom; they’re stuck.

Meanwhile, fine-wine zones such as Burgundy could produce much more desirable and saleable wine with cautious boundary modifications that reflect the realities of today’s climate. Some also believe that complantation of, say, Aligoté with Chardonnay would produce fresher and more complex white wines as the climate warms. But Burgundy’s stuck, too. Without maintenance, nothing lasts forever. Time to call in the plumbers.

In my glass this month:

Riesling aromas develop slowly in Alsace – and the better the vineyard, the more handsomely patience is rewarded. The Sipp Mack, Riesling 2016 from the wonderful Rosacker Grand Cru is just coming into its own in summer 2021: warm and honeyed yet stony and haunting in scent, and a closely woven palate seemingly mingling both fruit and stone essences. A compelling wine from a domaine to watch.

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