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’Origine – INAO 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.