Are French appellations in jeopardy?

This magnificent concept designed to protect local agricultural produce from fakes may end up in the hands of the agribusiness industry.


An issue over 20 years old

In 1996, Alain Berger stepped down as managing director of INAO, the custodian of French appellations which reports to the Ministry of Agriculture. He had caused a stir in a report published by the consumer magazine Que Choisir. Claiming that some appellation products did not deserve the label was probably not acceptable to the institution, despite the fact that magazines such as Le Rouge & le Blanc were already taking a similar tack. The number of appellations was growing apace – over 400 for wines alone – and they were becoming incomprehensible for consumers. More importantly, every wine grower wanted to produce appellation wines because they were easier to sell to consumers that were increasingly confused. Regulations began facilitating production of wines that were high-tech but soulless and supermarket prices went through the floor, dropping to less than €3 for a bottle of Bordeaux.


The situation worsens

In 2008, INAO began to review specifications for appellations, making them more structured and modern but also allowing more and more chemicals in the vineyards, including pesticides, and wineries, with over 130 inputs permitted, irrespective of whether they were labelled Vin de France or appellation wines. The situation subsequently continued to worsen. Winemakers and industrial producers were pulling the strings and appellation wines were increasingly losing their inherent character. Interestingly, consultant winemakers are often the ones selling wine growers inputs, which is tantamount to a doctor selling the drugs. Also, wine growers are often caught in the clutches of supermarket buyers and supermarkets are where most wines are bought. There is little incentive to produce quality wines: some Bordeaux retails for €1 and Champagne for under €10. The same trend occurs in other appellation segments such as cheese.


Change is overdue

This has prompted some wine growers to leave the appellation system and make the wines they like, with the exception of flourishing appellations such as Saint-Emilion, Champagne and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. More thought must be given to plant material, including choice of rootstock, grape varieties and planting densities, and to the clones that can be used; vineyards planted to a single clone can produce wines lacking complexity. Use of native yeast for fermentation, rather than standardised yeast, is also an aspect of ‘terroir’ that INAO has been overlooking and yet standardised yeasts produce more formulaic wines. And the taboo of irrigation, on which there was a blanket ban to promote deep vine rooting, has gone out of the window in some southern appellations. The effects of climate change are already tangible and the following decade will be decisive.