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Delhi Wine Club

Posted: Wednesday, 30 June 2010 12:25

The complexities of French AOC System

French do not have a word for Winemaker. Whether it is intentional or unintentional is a subject of debate but the outcome is clearly to undermine the role of winemaker over the influence of vineyard site in the art of making wine writes Rajiv Seth

French consciously assumed and propagated that the great wines are the result of great vineyard sites and highlighted the concept of terroir, this propagation led to the belief that a set of production standards, as stipulated by AOC regulations, will result in wine of a particular character and quality that is typical of that vineyard site or terroir and subsequently the   AOC in question.

While the wine intelligentsia largely agrees with the view that geography and geology do affect the wine flavour it is also debated widely that the French overstate the influence of the vineyard site in order to win their battles pertaining to Geographical Indication (GI).

The origin of Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) rules governing production of French Wines is not a very old idea and dates back to less than a century.

While to a large extent the French have been able to convince the wine world about the ability of AOC system in preserving the wine style attributed to a particular terroir, (which is a commendable achievement in itself) the AOC system has not been able to act as a guarantee of quality and the fact that the bottle of wine is worthy of its demanded price because of this highly regarded certification and soon with the advancement of the so referred New World the importance of winemaker became a key issue in wine business internationally and wine intelligentsia started broadcasting their views that the AOC wines hugely vary in standards.

Before the advent of so called New World the French protected their poor quality wine producers under the pretext of AOC certification and prevented market forces from being too harsh or to act to discourage the consumers to buy the French wine under the disguise of AOC’s formidable reputation and if some one dared to debate, the answer was the valuable function of AOCs is to ensure product authenticity and preserve diversity and certainly not to guarantee the quality.

If this were to be the case, the quality test would definitely have been far more stringent (though this will never happen for political reasons).  Soon with the rising reputation of new world the French were forced to acknowledge that winemaking has more influence over wine flavour than terroir does.

However in the recent years the majority of French producers have lost the ambition of making fine wine in the wake of formidable competition posed by the new world producers and may have realized the fact that their marketing gimmicks may not work in the new emerging business environment.

Secondly the French have not been quality focused across the board and have been production-led rather than market-led and perhaps are in reverse gear in following the footsteps of early years of Napa valley wine producers who stuck to their production led psychology before the great Robert Mondavi made them realize the importance of fine wine culture for enhancing the image of the valley. But that was then in 1960s or so.

Sadly, the AOC rules protect and shelter poor quality producers and prevent good ones from reaping the full benefit they deserve from their hard work or so called terroir impacts. This benefit is shared across all appellations. Someone drinks a great Château Grillet and some one robs that glory because of poor wines made in the same appellation. Unless the consumer is made aware that it is the producer and the winemaker that is critical for quality, they will keep on being robbed, relying on the misconception of an appellation- certified wine.

To be specific, perhaps from 1983 onwards CMO (Common Market Organization) and France in particular have been bailing out uncompetitive producers of wine industry purely because of political reasons and that is a big mistake considering its long extended duration. There’s a lot of denial in the French wine industry on this issue but the fact remains that enormous quantities of unsold mediocre Bordeaux are distilled into industrial alcohol each year. 

On the other hand Burgundy’s problem is less over production than unreliable production - the weather is a constant foe and the strict AOC rules of the region restrain winemakers from correcting in the cellar the damage that nature has inflicted in the vineyard. Resulting largely dismal, joyless, green wines which struggle to find buyers in UK and other markets proving the lack of ambition on part of  producers to come up with fine wines in the light of fact that the market for premium wines are far from facing crisis and in fact are growing across the globe.

From a market research perspective angle, in the new world the producers are the brand owners and have a very strong drive to maintain quality. In France the AOC systems have been propagated since decades as a powerful tool of branding and in most French regions producers pool in and the marketing is carried out on their behalf by generic bodies, leaving very little room for innovative marketing skills to be tried and individual producers have very less incentive to do. Those benefiting most from this generic branding are in fact the producers with the lowest costs who are least bothered about the quality. 

With this background should the AOCs be abandoned altogether- or made much looser? in the light of growing internationalization of wine industry, the role of AOC can be vital  As discussed earlier, AOC have helped preserve regional diversity of French wine industry which still holds well in marketing French wines.  The alternative option, to make varietal wines of no geographic distinction can pit the French producers directly against the new world, without a USP.

Considering the present consolidation of marketplace with growing power of Multi-beverage Multinationals taking the marketplace, commercial French wine production needs to consolidate with fewer, more-professional, market-oriented producers who can devote marketing strategies in new emerging markets like South East Asia, India and China in particular.

For French wine producers the best option seems to let the French wine industry get exposed to market forces and let the poor quality wine producers face the cruel reality, it will likely have the effect of ensuring reward to those who do the best work. This will do far more than a new set of rules to raise quality as French now seemingly dream to achieve via new set of rules.

Conclusion is obvious-Say no to AOCs!

Rajiv Seth

Rajiv Seth is a wine educationist, Author and an expert in International Wine Legislation especially European Union. In 1987, he became the first Indian to be awarded a gold medal from WSET, London. He also writes for DelWine. Contact him at


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