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Olivier Cousin

The main story this week, if you have your eyes on the Loire, is the Olivier Cousin saga; having needled the appellation authorities (The Institut National des Appellations d’OrigineINAO for short) once too often with imaginative labelling which challenges regulations for non-appellation wines, his latest caper has brought a heavy-handed Jintao-esque (the threat is a fine and potential jail sentence!!) response. The crime, if you don’t already know it, is the appearance of “AOC” on the cartons in which he packs his bottles; purportedly this stands for Anjou Olivier Cousin (an argument which in itself isn’t the most robust defence – as he would not be able to write Anjou on the label without the agrément for the appellation – but do appellation regulations cover packaging other than labels?) but which the INAO obviously recognise as the initials of their beloved appellation d’origine contrôlée. I suspect this, for the INAO, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, having already spent much time wringing their hands over Cousin’s other cheekily labelled Anjou Pur Breton, which not only illegally gives an origin for the wine but a grape variety too (as Breton = Cabernet Franc).

French wine regulations are bureaucratic and while I am sure there are many benefits to a regulated system of appellations (Baron Le Roy, a lawyer and proprietor of Chateau Fortia, came up with the appellation prototype in Chateauneuf du Pape in the 1930s, the intent being enforced production guidelines and reduction of fraud) I can also see their many problems. Here are a few I came up with – some very pertinent to the Loire, some more distant/general:

(a) appellations promote mediocrity. There is much industrial rubbish which makes the cut, and yet interesting and individual wines are rejected for lack of typicity.

(b) appellations stifle experimentation and diversity; look at the driving out of interesting varieties (such as Menu Pineau) and the ability to blend varieties together out of the Touraine appellations, in favour of yet more Sauvignon Blanc, despite the fact that this is hardly a route to success (otherwise why would InterLoire and Sam Harrop be working with so many growers to improve quality and appeal for this variety).

(c) The INAO seem expert in failure to anticipate and develop appropriate strategies. When you “manage”, you should look ahead for objections, avoid some with a robust process, be inclusive, work with everybody “on board” rather than being exclusive and marginalising people. Can anybody tell me that objections to (i) the now-deceased Cru Bourgeois classification system, (ii) the 2006 St Emilion reclassification (iii) the Chaume-Quarts de Chaume promotion-demotion-promotion-demotion-promotion debacle couldn’t have been predicted? The INAO sometimes look as though they are working against growers, not with them. Cousin’s predicament is one more example of this.

(d) appellations continue to obscure rather than enlighten. The preference for ‘Clisson’ rather than ‘Granite de Clisson’ is one more bad decision of this ilk by the INAO. On a more basic level, not permitting grape varieties on labels has always been to the French wine industry’s disadvantage. And at levels lower than the appellations (vin de pays and vin de table) prevention of some information being placed on the label (especially for vin de table) disadvantages growers. It’s amazing to think athat the regulatory body of a commercial sector in a western nation would work so effectively against a section of entirely honest citizens of that country.

I’m sure there are many more…

Cousin’s actions for me have some loose parallels with the super-Tuscans of he 1980s. Regardless of what you might think of super-expensive wines such as Ornellaia and Sassicaia today, their origin lies in frustration with authority-driven regulations which inhibited quality and stifled enthusiasm in favour of dullness and conformity. The result was some superb vino da tavola wines which were, eventually, embraced within appropriately sympathetic categories by the authorities. The Italians learned to be inclusive rather than rule-driven and exclusive. If only the INAO could learn from these events, they would perhaps take on a rather more quality-orientated and inclusive stance, to the ultimate benefit of all, as a result.

These links may be of interest:
Jim Budd in Decanter

Bertrand Celce

And there are petitions I encourage you to sign here:
Glougueule
Jenny & François on Oliver Cousin

8 Responses to “Olivier Cousin”

  1. Last week I visited the Domaine de Flaujauges in St. Julien. M. Fillastre does an impressive job there that is also being threatened by AOC rules. It appears, simply by being very hands-off in his approach to the raising of his wines, that he is in danger of losing his AOC status. Not enough new oak! not enough packaged yeasts! Idiosyncratic wine! It is another one of those cases where the AOC is biting itself.

  2. The French growers should be more like the late and sadly missed Didier Daguenau and give INAO the proverbial finger. When he couldn’t get the Pouilly-Fumé appellation for his wine he called it “Le quintessence de mes Roustons” which means something like “the quintessence of my balls”. He never looked back.

  3. Thanks Justin and Ralph for these comments.

  4. Hi Chris
    I have my own not very flattering opinions re the INAO but actually in this case I’d tend to side with them. There’s loads of hype about the possible prison sentence and fine Mr Cousin’s facing, but the French legal system isn’t (quite) that stupid – and the guy did know exactly what he was doing by using the word ‘Anjou’ on the label in the first place.
    Given the huge efforts by the vignerons of the Anjou to improve quality over the last decade and the massive work and expense by the region (growers, syndicat and interprofession) to promote the region and it’s appellation, it’s hardly surprising they’ve taken umbrage. (And I don’t think I’d compare the wines with Sassicaia …)
    But I do agree (strongly) about the Clisson point. A whole region that works its butt off over a number of years to create 3 soil-based crus only to be told the appellation system is based on communes, not terroir strikes me as horrendous…

  5. You make some good points; I didn’t dwell on my thoughts that Olivier isn’t exactly an abused innocent in this situation. He has courted trouble, and he got trouble! But the reaction from the INAO is still way over the top.

    I’m not comparing the wines of Olivier Cousin to Sassicaia (did it read like that?), more the anti-diversity anti-quality legislation which seems to favour mediocrity – the enforcing of 100% Sauvignon cuvées for Touraine comes to mind first as I write this.

  6. He’s had some good press, so he should be happy.
    The sauvignon question is interesting – would be more so if any real effort had been put into making half decent chenins in the Touraine, but the INAO have extended the use of chenin until 2021.
    More worrying is the pressure the INAO have put on the old VDQS regions to go AOC instead of vin de pays. Think gros plant, coteaux d’Ancenis and st Pourçain, regions that would have been perfect as regional vins de pays, but where rules have been tightened and made more restrictive to a point they risk losing markets – as in St Pourçain, where we now need to include a minimum 40% gamay in the reds…
    That said, there are always alternatives to allow for diversity – plenty of growers make oddball wines as VdPs, and we’ve zapped the original 15% gamay from our St Pourçain ‘La Grille’, leaving it 100% pinot noir and declaring it as a vin de France. (which blows Mr Cousin’s complaint that you can’t put variety and vintage on a vin de table)
    Love it or hate it, you need to remember that decisions within each appellation are made by the producers on a one-vigneron-one-vote base, so every vigneron has a vote, whether they’ve one hectare or one hundred. But we could debate the sense of that one for ever!

  7. Thanks Charles, good and informative points as always.

    I find the more I learn about French wine regulations, though, the less I know!

    I have Jan 18th in the diary, btw.

  8. Just think of the French ‘administration’ as horrendous – and appellations as brands. Easy!