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Behind the curtains of French wine laws

Posted: Friday, 03 June 2011 11:00

Behind the curtains of French wine laws

Although the concept of Terroir continues to influence present day trade negotiations, arouses passions and ignites legal arguments, it has several iterations which have in turn changed during the course of time, with the Terroir being sufficiently re-invented so as to remain useful and relevant. But during this state of   transition, it is worth asking whether  the  story  of  wine should become the story for all GIs, writes Rajiv Seth

The French Law of 1919 continued to rely on origin or Terroir as the touchstone for prohibiting objectionable uses but the progressive acknowledgement of the human contribution to wine was only recognized by the year 1935, which also became the basis in the AOC regime that followed a few years later.

 The conceptual French thinking behind Terroir theory is that, the Origin is a proxy for quality and wine exemplifies this product category. The concept of geographical indications relies on the assumption that different environments produce different wine grapes and thus, wines of different characteristics. As a region or a producer gains repute as a source of a distinct and desirable product, imitations appear and the battle against fraud begins.

The linkages between origin and quality are not recent, being traced back to ancient Greek and Roman efforts at wine regulation. The connection between geography and quality had become a widely accepted belief, if not to say myth by the nineteenth century, thus preventing origin fraud is therefore considered an important facet of preventing wine fraud more generally, with the overarching regulatory goal being to ensure quality.

The debate centers around two arguments- was geographical origin per se a sufficient proxy for the purposes of guaranteeing product quality and to what extent can a regulatory regime based on guaranteeing geographical origin alone, be termed as satisfactory?

Phylloxera and Fraud: The co-relation theory

The late 19th century was a sustained period of crisis for the French wine industry and Phylloxera was not the only misfortune to beset French vineyards during this period. It was preceded by the onset of fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, which swept through European vineyards in the 1840s and 1850s,    proving extremely difficult to control.

As Whalen summarizes it:  The ‘challenges confronting French wine-producing regions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were collectively known as “the wine crises”-la crise du vin.

The consequences of Phylloxera were devastating. The infestation spread steadily and by 1900, almost three quarters of French vineyards were affected. On the question of an appropriate response, a sharp division existed between those who favored a largely chemical response and those who advocated         grafting vines on to resistant American rootstock. The latter ultimately proved successful.

One important  long  term  consequence  of  this  crisis  was  the  emergence  of  a  more  scientific approach to viticulture and oenology. However in the short term, one of the possible impacts of the Phylloxera epidemic was the sharp fall in the output from the traditional vineyards of Europe, but during this period there was no fall in demands thus creating an ideal situation for not only the fraudulent misrepresentation of origin but for cutting corners, adulteration and compromising on quality in general.

The Origin Fraud and the Government intervention

That there was origin fraud prevailing in the wine markets of Europe during this period is recorded in a variety of sources. Wryly observes that the merchants of Burgundy were certainly re-labelling Algerian reds as Burgundy originals. Problems of wine adulteration and poor quality information for consumers led to the collapse in the sales of genuine fine wines in the important British market. During this period, both ‘counterfeiting’ (using a regional appellation in questionable or fraudulent circumstances) and   adulteration (including the addition of water, sugar, and artificial coloring) were not uncommon.              

Technological  developments  and  organic  chemistry  in particular  had  opened  up  new  possibilities.    Other  ‘questionable practices’ which emerged in the wake of Phylloxera included using hybrid vines producing unsuitable grapes, a general emphasis on quantity at the cost of quality and the addition of lead   oxide to halt the acidification process.  

Apart from the more extreme cases of adulteration, there were intense differences of opinions between négociants and vignerons on various issues, for example as to what genuine Champagne consisted of? Could merchants based in the département of Marne source their grapes from outside the region and still label the end product as Champagne? What about Champagne houses based within the traditional region of production, who exported grapes to Germany for crushing and bottling? Furthermore ‘What was Champagne? Was it a blend of certain types of grapes? Was it a blend of grapes from an exclusive region? What were the boundaries of that region? Was there a relation between these boundaries and the manufacturing of the wine and what was the basis for these limits and boundaries?

The vine shortages caused by phylloxera had also forced merchants to search for new sources of supply, often in foreign countries or through the production of artificial wines. The subsequent recovery in domestic production was not accompanied by a marked reduction in these alternative supplies, and growers had to stand by and watch prices and their profits fall steeply from the turn of the twentieth century, leading to demands for the government intervention. However, opinion was divided as to the extent of how much the government should intervene, leading to conflicts not just between the growers and merchants but also between large and small growers, producers of fine and ordinary wines, and growers in different geographic locations.

Along with a drop in quality, the epidemic resulted in an increase in quantity in its aftermath as well as successive price crashes for grape harvests. When overproduction was coupled with perceptions of widespread fraud, the relative value of wine to the French economy entered a decline and the government was forced to intervene. The task before it was therefore to address origin fraud while ensuring quality and also controlling over production. Of great concern was the indiscriminate replanting of vines in well-known regions, since the adoption of high-yielding, lower quality vines pushed down prices and threatened the ability of vignerons to make a living. As Warner  describes the  result:  ‘The Government  began  to  protect  the  winegrower  from  himself  by  protecting  his  product’

How Government control led to the Glory of French Wines

The intervention by the government, though much delayed, ultimately led to the controlled planting and    cultivation of vines and subsequent limitation of yields, as part of a regime designed to maintain  standards of quality. Today European wine legislation continues to require the stipulation of quality related criteria, such as (a) the demarcation of the area of production; (b) classification of vine  varieties;  (c)  specification  of  cultivation  methods;  (d)  the  minimum  natural  alcoholic strength  by  volume;  (e)  the  yield  per  hectare  etc. However the initial challenge was to identify the basis for delimiting the authentic product and its region of production.

The Period of Transition: From the AO to the AOC

Taking a dig from the past experiences the French parliamentary response to the wine crisis reveals the extent to which Terroir was considered a necessary or sufficient condition to guarantee wine quality. Furthermore the chain of events that followed demonstrated that guaranteeing truthful origin labelling per se is an insufficient condition, as (a) defining the region of origin is often a political and contentious act (b) the legal regime gradually recognized the importance of human agency in producing quality wine, by imposing stricter controls on production standards. The development of this line of thinking among the French law makers undermined the proposition that physical geography was solely responsible for the virtues of the end product.

Previously attempts had been made to address particular fraudulent practices that affected wine quality, but it is with the law of 1905 that a systematic response began to take shape. Although its focus was on origin labelling, it is worth noting that there were other potential reasons for regulating the wine industry around this period and thus Whelan identifies ‘estates (property) in Bordeaux, labels (manufacturer) in Champagne and varietals in Alsace’ as possible targets for regulatory intervention.

The Law of 1905 was broadly aimed at the repression of fraud in the sale of wine. The law prescribed imprisonment or fines for anyone who deceived or attempted to mislead a purchaser as to the qualities,    composition and content of the useful features of wine, or mislead with regard to their variety or origin.

The law of 1907, which was applied to wines, sparkling wines, brandies and spirits confirmed the objective of protecting valuable wine appellations by restricting their use to owners, vignerons and traders within defined regions. The  prescription  was  activated  by  the  use  on labels,  containers,  invoices  and  other  documentation. The demarcation process was also touched upon by the Law of 1908, which proposed that boundaries should be established on the basis of constant local usages of the appellation.

This framework may have been a well-intentioned response to the prevailing wine frauds of that time and an attempt to improve quality, but the myopic focus on origin proved disastrous. As Joseph Capus, a prominent architect of  the   modern French AOC regime steadily criticized the flawed assumption  that by regulating  the  truthful  use  of  geographical  origin  on  labels,  problems associated with product quality would fall in to line. Origin alone was simply insufficient to guarantee wine quality. He spent the better part of three decades arguing that recognizing existing best practices and organizing production       along these lines was a crucial complement to terroir theory.     

Under the 1905 Law, the problem of fraud as to quality remained unaddressed, while the competing pressures associated with demarcating origin regions became all too apparent.  Establishing boundary limits was not simply based on geographical criteria but was a politically influenced process

The Laws of 1935 and 1947

There  was  an  emerging  consensus  by  this  stage  in  France  that  guaranteeing  geographical origin  was  insufficient  and  the  Law  of  1927  suggested  the  way  forward.  Since the judicial determination procedure generated uncertainty, a permanent official body was instead to be entrusted with recognizing geographical boundaries as well as production specifications.

The new regime was therefore conceived as a system for guaranteeing both origin and quality and on   30th July 1935 the law creating the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regime made its debut. The    change in nomenclature embodies the transition towards greater product regulation and “control”.    The    body    which     initially attempted  to  co-ordinate  public  and  private  interests  in  this  field  of  regulation  was  the Comite National des Appellations d'Origine (CNAO). It began the monumental         task of demarcating the vineyards and appellations, subsequently being renamed in 1947 as the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), which continues this work today.

This leads to a present day understanding of Produits de Terroir that embraces the human element. The current understanding is defined as: Local and traditional food products or produce with a unique and identifiable character based upon specific historical, cultural or technical components.

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.

L A Loubère, The Wine Revolution in France – The Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, Princeton 1990) p.114.
 H Johnson, The Story of Wine (Mitchell Beasley, London 1989) p.120.
R Bohmrich; ‘Terroir: Competing Perspectives on the Roles of Soil, climate and People’ (1996), Journal of Wine Research p. 33-34
C Campbell Phylloxera: How Wine was saved for the World (Harper Perennial, London 2004).
H W Paul Science, Vine and Wine in Modern France (CUP, Cambridge 1996)
J Simpson, ‘Selling to Reluctant Drinkers: the British Wine Market, 1860-1914’ (2004) p.57 Economic History Review 80.
A Stanziani ‘Information, Quality and Legal Rules: Wine Adulteration in Nineteenth Century France’ (2009) p.51
J Simpson ‘Cooperation and Conflicts: Institutional Innovation in France's Wine Markets, 1870-1911’ (2005)


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