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Jefford on Monday: A Modest Proposal

My favourite week of the year has come and gone. The Decanter World Wine Awards was as logistically dazzling as ever: at the same prearranged date, and at one small point on the earth’s surface, 211 wine tasters and over 14,000 wines converged from homes, vineyards and cellars scattered throughout the temperate bands of each hemisphere.

Ants and bees would look on approvingly, but perhaps the best analogy is avian migration: wines and tasters taking wing each spring to meet, taste and give birth to a new season’s cohort of medals and trophies, and thereby help render the world’s wine species ever fitter for purpose.

The results, of course, will have to wait until the October edition of Decanter magazine, but I can tell you that my Languedoc-Roussillon panel worked harder than ever at a bigger entry than ever. At some point around the middle of the week, moreover, as I looked through the different categories we were tasting, the crystal ball which all judges have somewhere at the back of their cerebral cortex cleared for a moment, giving me a glimpse of problems which might soon begin to loom for France’s wine scene. Hence the proposal which follows.

It’s time, I think, for a simple, universal change to France’s appellation regulations. That change would be to render all stipulations regarding grape variety advisory rather than obligatory.

In practice, this would be less dramatic a gesture than it sounds. France’s greatest vineyards would continue to use their existing varieties. Why would Pétrus not persist with Merlot, the growers of Gevrey with Pinot, or the mountaineers of Condrieu with Viognier? It would be economic folly to tinker with what is evidently successful.

Those who might wish to plant unorthodox varieties, by contrast, would be those making wines in appellations whose destiny is not yet a settled one. It would, in other words, add flexibility to the evolutionary process. Even then, little would change rapidly, since grafting existing rootstocks over to new scions takes time, and replanting takes even longer.

Why do I think this is necessary? The success of Vins de Pays and their incorporation under the IGP umbrella (which sounds to consumers very like AOC or AOP); the increasing use of portmanteau appellations like ‘Languedoc’ (which intensifies the brand-mimicry of the appellation system); and the growing resort to ‘Vin de France’ (given that growers are now allowed to specify variety and vintage on this replacement for ‘Vin de Table’) were all much in evidence as I surveyed the entry sheets this year.

Great — yet there’s a price to pay, too. The wines may be good and the marketing flexibility may be welcome, but if these suitcase names are used for wines which do indeed come from distinguished sites, then we will lose geographical focus, and with it, some potential understanding of terroir. If you have beautiful old-vine Carignan or Grenache Blanc in your St Chinian or Terrasses du Larzac vineyard, for example, and you want to bottle it on its own, you will probably call it Vin de Pays d’Oc or Vin de France. As an interested consumer, though, I would have preferred to know that this Grenache Blanc was from St Chinian, or that this Carignan was from Terrasses du Larzac. I’ve been robbed of further understanding of terroir. We’re eroding meaning, rather than adding to it.  

The doctrinaire legislator’s response would be to say that making certain varieties obligatory stops producers from planting those which are wholly unsuitable or over-productive. That argument, though, is two decades out-of-date now. Those producers who are still in business and who intend to remain so are generally well-trained and competent, and unlikely to make crass decisions. Even the wrong variety in a distinguished site, moreover, will tell us something about that site.  

Climate change is a factor, too. Remember that 2011 was the hottest year ever recorded in France, and hotter than 2003. A variety which was perfectly adapted to a site in 1987 or 1992 may no longer be so well-suited to it. Something that struck me forcibly at the DWWA this year, for example, was that many parts of Languedoc are now becoming too warm for Syrah.

The success of Châteauneuf du Pape as an appellation should give confidence to any legislator considering my modest proposal. No French appellation is more liberal about varieties (23 possibilities, if you include different colour variants of the same variety, used in any percentage the producer wishes). When the INAO wanted growers to commit to more prescriptive varietal regulations during 2007 and 2008, their response was swift and unanimous: no.

A move from obligatory to advisory won’t jeopardise the varietal research of the past: it will still be there. It would be sage liberalisation, extending rather than inhibiting the remit of terroir. I commend it to the INAO.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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