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Jefford on Monday: The gathering storm

I admire the growers of Pommard. In fact, if I was writing headlines for a British tabloid newspaper, I'd probably call them 'Have-A-Go Heroes' (the combination of pluck and foolhardiness always plays well with readers).

I don’t doubt that their dossier, making a case for the promotion of Rugiens and Epenots to Grand Cru status, is beautifully riveted, watertight at 60 metres, and comes replete with copious geological, economical and historical ballast. Nonetheless it will be about as welcome at INAO’s Parisian headquarters as an outbreak of phylloxera in the pot plants.

Precedent means that the application isn’t theoretically doomed from the outset; the odds are perhaps marginally less long than they would be for any existing Bordeaux second growth (such as Léoville-Las Cases) which tried to make a sprint for First Growth status. Clos des Lambrays in Morey-St Denis, for example, managed elevation in 1981, as did La Grande Rue in Vosne-Romanée in 1992 (for the 1991 vintage onwards).

There are, though, stark differences. The 8.84 ha of Clos des Lambrays is (all bar the final 0.04 of a ha) in single ownership, as is the much smaller 1.65 ha of La Grande Rue. The two parts of Pommard Epenots, by contrast, amount to a whopping 30.52 ha, while the two parts of Les Rugiens account for 12.66 ha (these figures are from Jasper Morris’s excellent book Inside Burgundy). There are not two but dozens of producers on board the promotion bus, whooping and hollering for all they are worth.

The INAO officials will know exactly what is at stake. Suppose they said yes to Pommard. The very next day, there would be dossiers thudding onto the doormat from Meursault, Nuits-St Georges and Volnay – three other Grand Cru-less villages with an exceptionally strong case to make for some of their great vineyards (like Meursault’s Perrières, Nuits-St George’s Les St-Georges or Volnay’s Cailleret).

Producers in Puligny’s own Cailleret and Pucelles, in Chambolle’s Les Amoureuses, or Vosne’s Cros Parantoux or Les Suchots would soon be on the phone to Dijon University geologists, historians and economists, too. Before long, there’d be Burgundian dossiers on the INAO stairs, along the corridors and stacking up in the toilets. You wouldn’t be able to push the front door open in the morning.

None of this means that the claim isn’t, at least for the best parts of these two vineyards, justified. The fraud-riven, depressed and threadbare world of 1930s Burgundy, when the appellations were awarded, was a very different place to today’s lustrously globalised scene. Humility and modesty, out-and-out laziness and the desire to minimise a tax burden were all reasons why some of the region’s best Premier Cru vineyards were never even considered for Grand Cru status.

There is something bigger than the simple rights and wrongs of the case at stake, too. As I’ll be revealing (using an example from a very different region) in my column in the November edition of Decanter magazine, the entire appellation system in France is reaching a point of quiet crisis, and dossiers from all over the country are indeed rumoured to be stacking up at INAO headquarters, with precious little decision-making going on.

It’s easy enough to create new appellations, or to elevate villages and sub-zones within an existing appellation, since you only create winners. That, though, is not revision in the fullest sense of the word.

Many appellations were created hastily, sloppily and over-laxly; political lobbying often over-rode the purest considerations of terroir. In any case, we now have another eight decades of vintages to look at; our tools for analysing terroir are now much more sophisticated than in the 1930s; and a warmer world, too, is subtly modifying the winegrowing picture. Meaningful revision, in other words, must mean exclusion as well as inclusion. It means creating losers as well as winners.

Fast forward to 2014. At last, the officials of the INAO are ready to meet the Pommard growers. Yes, they say, we are ready to grant you Grand Cru status for these two vineyards – but for the two walled monopoles in Epenots only, and for the lower 5 ha of Rugiens only. Moreover we’d like the little Clos de Verger and Les Combes Dessus demoted from Premier Cru to village status.

There would be a highly charged meeting that night at the Pommard mairie. The growers would withdraw their dossier the next day, and the odds on the existing status of Burgundy’s vineyards ever being changed would lengthen. Until lost from view.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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