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Jefford on Monday: Building a Future

John Forrest's February call for his fellow Marlborough growers to think about moving towards 'a self-enforced appellation system … with strict controls over yield and quality' broached a topic which, I suspect, we will hear a lot more about in the next few years.

Photo: Terrace Heights Estate, Wairau [thewine.co.nz]

Forrest’s call came in the context of overproduction and consequent erosion of Marlborough’s image over the last half-decade. Maybe the pressure is off: it would seem as if nature has stepped in to rectify matters for the 2012 harvest. A projected crop of around 300,000 tonnes will slice much of the fat off New Zealand’s once-trim belly. Forrest’s reflection, though, remains timely, not just in New Zealand but throughout the wine-growing world outside Europe.

The definition of wine regions outside Europe has been underway for over a quarter of a century. American Viticultural Areas date from 1980; Australia’s Geographical Indications date from the 1993 amendment of the Australian Wine and Brand Corporation Act. New Zealand’s own system is more recent; the relevant Geographical Indications legislation was passed in 2004 and 2006. There are exceptions, but in general if you see a regional name on a label you can assume that 85 per cent or more of the grapes which made the wine in that bottle came from the stated region.

But, as yet, nothing more than that. There are no rules regarding choice of variety, yield, pruning system, harvesting method, or any of the other stipulations common in Europe. This ‘freedom’ has been much vaunted by GI and AVA users. Quite right, too: in the early evolutionary stage in which most GIs and AVAs find themselves, to attempt to impose more restrictive regulations would be senseless. They need the freedom to evolve.

Sooner or later, though, comes the moment to begin drawing economic lessons from all this freedom. Some regions prove more successful than others. Within the most profitable regions, some varieties command a higher price than others. Leading producers are likely to be responsible about yield, and to have learned which vineyard and winery practices are appropriate for the varieties most suited to that location; their wines will sell at the highest prices. Perennial value begins to be created. That value becomes the basis of domestic reputation and, sometimes, world renown.

With reputation, though, comes the risk to reputation. That’s when assiduous producers like John Forrest are likely to want tighter regulation. Marlborough has something to loose if sub-standard wine bearing that name reaches the market. Much the same is true of Coonawarra or Margaret River, Napa Valley or the Willamette Valley. It’s what the growers of Champagne and Chablis learned to their cost in the chaos which came with post-phylloxera replanting in Europe. It is, in fact, why appellations exist.

If GIs, AVAs and their equivalents in South Africa, Chile and Argentina are to continue to bring benefits to wine growers and consumers alike, they can’t simply ossify in infancy. Further meaning must accrue for each. Standards must rise; the focus must tighten. If this is left to individual brands alone, the only benefit will be to those brands, and any reputation held in common will be eroded. The meaning which clings to those communal, geographical names will be lost.

The problem for those administering ‘appellations’ in the world’s developing wine nations is that every GI or AVA has different needs. The weakest, indeed, are liable to need abolition or amalgamation. Even in the strongest, any unilateral imposition of regulation is likely to meet with resistance from producers with economic strategies based on volume rather than quality.

It’s important to do something, though. Dr Forrest’s suggestion of a voluntary syndicate is probably the only workable one in the first instance. Later in the evolutionary process, of course, those who go it alone in agreeing higher or tighter standards may find others wish to join them. This is how you build a future for terroir.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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