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There was one theme that came up at every vigneron I visited this past summer.
L' Agrément is literally the granting of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée to a wine. Every year, in every region, there is a process by which the producers of each AOC judge the work of their peers and decide if it merits the name of the AOC. The origins of this system date back centuries in spirit, although legally it was formulated in the 1930s. The idea was that system defends the consumer -- it guarantees that the wine bought by the consumer actually comes from the region, village or vineyard on the label. It also guarantees that the wine is not flawed and most importantly that the wine is typique.
Typique means literally that the wine is typical. Typical in the sense that the wine expresses a terroir and typical in the sense that it conforms to the norms of the appellation. What exactly defines normative is the gray area that is being discussed all over France. Because, essentially, the aromatic and taste norms are being defined all over France by the majority in each AOC.
And here is where we get into a dangerous zone, the tyranny of the majority. If the bulk of Touraine's Sauvignons Blancs are overcropped, lean, acidic and bitter, then something richer and more interesting is automatically atypical and outside the norms of the AOC.
French vignerons tend to be a conservative bunch and intolerant of marginal characters. They also tend to be a close-knit and jealous lot. The Didier Dagueneaus who get four to five times the price of their neighbors by producing a wine that is perceived by the majority to be eccentric and made by eccentric viticultural and oenological practices quickly find that some of their wines are not accepted as typique and are declassified by the majority into Vins de Table. Same for Eloi Durbach, Jean Thévenet and so many more well-known vignerons.
Of course, these are the celebrities. Below them are a movement of vignerons who are working hard in their vineyards, who are harvesting by hand, producing low yields, working with wild yeasts, not concentrating, not enzyming and not spoofulating. They are simply making real wines, that in a better world would be the models for their terroir. Instead they have become pariahs.
Their wines are often eliminated from the AOC, or grudgingly accepted after several appeals, because, in the current context of mediocrity, they are aberrant.
Unfortunately for these vignerons, those who do not have the reputations of a Durbach or Dagueneau, a declassification into Table Wine or Vin de Pays can often have disastrous financial results. When Jean-Paul Brun is told that his beautiful Beaujolais Rouges are atypique and have to be declassified into table wine -- without vintage, without the name of the grape variety, without the name of the estate (restrictions that are obligatory for Table Wine) -- which of his customers are going to buy the wine?
The French vineyards have grown exponentially since the war and various AOCs have doubled, tripled or quadrupled in size. Many of them use high-producing clonal selections and mechanical agricultural work that, by definition, make a different product than the "mavericks" who are still making real wine based on the raw materials that defined that terroir in the first place. As sales go bad all over France, the tendency is for the majority to get even more intolerant and to apply more pressure to the marginals.
Perhaps the best thing would be to go the route of Italian wines and start declaring wines as Table Wines as an alternative to the AOC system. Because it is apparent that it is the producer and not the AOC that makes the difference. A Vouvray from B&G and a Vouvray from Domaine Huet are both from the same AOC but the regional indicator tells us nothing about the actual quality in the bottle.
As an American, it always amazes me that any real estate mogul can hire a consultant, buy grapes, start a winery in California and fetch $50.00 a bottle. But a Muscadet is a Muscadet is a Muscadet and no matter how good the work is, no matter how good the wine, a Muscadet ought to cost under $10.00. Maybe a top cuvée can go for $12.00. And, if you lose the AOC Muscadet because the wine is judged as being too rich, you are in VDP which has to cost $5.99 retail. Or less.
Each AOC in France has a range of acceptable prices that goes with the range of acceptable flavors and aromatics. Whether it be Gevrey-Chambertin Village or Cairanne. Occasionally, there is the Dagueneau and other wine celebrities who can transcend the built-in barriers. Sometimes, a rave review from Robert Parker or The Wine Spectator can also aid a producer to transcend their regional limits. But, on the whole, the wine trade and wine public are delighted to see normative price restraints hold sway. Even though the real estate mogul in California can get $50.00 a bottle for his first effort.
This sounds like a good system. Everybody is supposed to like lower prices and lower prices are to the advantage of the consumer. The problem is that costs are not equal -- the maverick vigneron who works at low yields and takes every expense to ensure the best possible grapes come into his cuverie and the best possible wine goes into the bottle has another level of expense than the neighbor who machine harvests and uses industrial winemaking techniques. There are no migrant laborers in France and labor is extremely expensive. Somewhere along the line, there has to be a financial incentive for vignerons to work harder and better.
In the current market, the vigneron who works well is harassed by his peers in the AOC and then forced to sell his wine at about the same prices as his neighbors who sell average, mediocre or horrible wine. Isn't it time that we in the wine trade try to motivate the public and motivate our customers to understand that there is a relationship between what the consumer pays and what the consumer gets in the bottle?
In touring around America, I notice that many of the younger people in the trade respect a meritocracy and not an appellation hierarchy. People new to the trade have been trained in California wine, not in French wines, and judge the producer, not the region. If a Côtes-du-Rhône is delicious, then it doesn't matter that it is not going to cost $9.99 retail. Hopefully, this trend will continue.
In France, they are still a long way off. The French drinking public still views their wines through the prism of the AOC and expects a certain fourchette of prices, often beginning at rock bottom. Enormous supermarket chains, selling at low mark-ups, dominate the French wine trade and encourage this tendency.
Let's be reasonable. We have a three tier system here. A wine that costs $9.99 retail usually leaves the vigneron's cellar at $3.00 to $3.50. A producer wants to make $5.00 and everyone in the American trade considers him a thief! So the inclination in the trade is to buy from the cheapest sourcing out there to keep the prices low in the market and to turnover inventory. OK, wine distribution is not a non-profit business and we are looking to make money. But isn't part of our responsibility to explain to our customers and to the public why it is worth paying something extra for good and great wine?
Hopefully, the time will come when the buying public buys a wine for the quality of the wine and not for the perceived reputation of the AOC. Until that time, the abuse of the majority will dominate the vineyards of France and restrict what we are able to get into the hands of consumers. Let's work together to try to turn this situation around.