Ask a European wine lover about the classification systems of Europe – you know the ones that may drive you crazy because they require that the labels don’t state the grape on the bottle but rather the place? — and you’re likely to get an earful. The EU classification of wine, based on the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC system, is a complex categorization that designates and controls names of wines, spirits, and food.
Since the EU system is based on the AOC, but is a bit broader, I’m going to focus my comments on the original. It’s still in place and the good, bad, and ugly continue to be realities. And you can extrapolate my views to the European System at large (the Protected Designation of Origin system, as it’s called) from what I say about the AOC system.
So with that caveat…
Background of the AOC System
The AOC system represents the evolution of more simplistic classifications that, when first instituted in 1905 were aimed at protecting discreet geographic and historical winemaking regions. To put it in real terms, that meant that Champagne could only come from the Champagne region, and that Bergerac in Southwest France, that made similar wines, couldn’t call their wines “Bordeaux.”
At the start this easy, geographical classification (similar to the American Viticultural Area system in the US) seemed promising, but producers and regulators found this didn’t go far enough to protect the distinct land characteristics and the historic integrity of certain regions. Why not? Cheating.
Dishonest producers over-cropped, made crap wine from random grape varieties, and slapped on the geographic label, charging wine lovers a premium for swill because it had the pedigree of “Côte de Beaune” or “Pouilly-Fumé.” Although some producers aimed to elevate their specific regions by keeping quality high, the regulations didn’t go far enough despite more laws to allow courts to prosecute cheaters.
Compounding the general greed was a wallop to the world economy: Just as the system was coming into form in the early 1900s, the Great Depression hit. The consumer market for more exclusive, expensive goods evaporated, and the focus shifted to cheap bulk wine – sparking planting of lower quality yet hardy French-American hybrid grapes, and encouraging cash strapped producers to blend their wines with inexpensive juice from Algeria and warmer parts of France to beef up the alcohol content and make their smaller harvests stretch farther.
Still in the midst of the Depression, France saw that its initial attempts at regulation were an epic fail. So in 1935 the French Ministry of Agriculture set up the Institut National de l’Origine et de la qualité (INAO) to create and legally enforce specifications regulating French agriculture. The board, made up of finance, agriculture, and justice ministers began its intensive work by consulting with top producers in each region to define boundaries and rules that would ensure quality products were produced under the regulations. The new laws focused strongly on those formulated by Baron Pierre le Roy of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an influential producer who began a movement in his region to delimit how this unique southern Rhône wine had to be produced. The laws instituted by Baron le Roy and codified in 1923, regulated allowable grapes, farming practices including pruning, trellising, training, and minimum alcohol content.
These parameters from Châteauneuf-du-Pape were extrapolated to the national system. By 1937 most of the large areas with historical legacy and distinct terroir – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and Rhône — had their sub appellations and laws set.
The AOC Today
The INAO is still very much in force today and is an arbiter on all things AOC. With 350 areas (in fairness, 25% of that is Burgundy) or nearly 50% of vineyard land classified as AOC, it has a lot on its plate. For its 13 regional committees, the institute regulates production area, grapes allowed, grape ripeness/alcohol strength, maximum yields (including vine age), viticulture (vine density, pruning, training, irrigation), and winemaking practices (aging, pressing, chaptalization, etc). As an extra protection, AOC wines are also tasted by a local board for “typicity.” If it tastes like it’s supposed to, it gets the AOC ok.
So just to summarize, there are controls on all the growing, production, and winemaking. What else could you ask for in terms of quality control and protection for one of the most important places for wine in the world? What’s up with people who have beef with this system? It seems strict and like it should keep producers on the straight and narrow.
What’s wrong with the system?
Well, there are few things that you’ll hear critics complain about over and over again. Let’s go through the list:
- Wines can be AOC level and still suck.
People argue that although the AOC is billed as a quality arbiter, it is far from it. Really, it’s just a checklist. Bad vineyards and unethical people exist everywhere, yet having the stamp of an AOC often means we’ll buy it blind, because we want “a Sancerre” or “a Bordeaux.” That’s not very helpful at all. If it’s from a huge area and the wine doesn’t have a personality, what’s the point of having an AOC?
- Cheating is rampant.
Do you really think the legal eagles of France can police every move of every winemaker? No way. So inevitably, there are going to be cheaters. People who cut corners and do illegal stuff — mixing in unauthorized grapes to give a wine from a poor vintage more umph, chaptalizing, which is adding sugar to boost alcohol levels beyond what’s legal to make the wine seem richer, acidifying wine when it’s not permitted – it all happens in reality. Only really bad cases get publicized but it’s happening all the time.
- The tasting panel is a freaking joke.
Typicity is a relative term. Could it mean that you have a buddy or relative on the AOC board that can get your wine passed through? Sure. Could it mean that an unknown upstart is blackballed and its wines are declassified to Vins de Pays (country wine) because it lacks connections to the board? Definitely. Typicity is a relative concept.
- And finally, the most New World of all the arguments – where’s the creativity and innovation?
Old World, indeed! How old fashioned can you get? Not allowing growers to experiment with new plantings of different grapes! Is the AOC a fascist system? And if you are free to express your vine creativity, you usually have to declassify your wine and take significantly less money for it. Not good for encouraging new, great products.
My Counterpoint: A Win for Us as Wine Shoppers…
I’ve considered these arguments and I’ve even debated people on them. But in spite of all this nay-saying, I’m a fan and proponent of the AOC system.
I’m not a producer and I don’t work for a frustrated French winery who wants to do cool new things. Instead, I’m speaking as a wine buyer whom the system seeks to protect. And I think this system, although flawed in the ways mentioned above, is fantastic compared to the systems of New World countries. I’ll go farther and say that New World countries would do well to take a page out of the book of the EU and think more about what they can do to convey what’s in the bottle to overwhelmed wine buyers (me included! ).
So, what are my counterpoints and how do I defend my very unpopular view among the wine intelligentsia?
- There is such thing as typicity and it is helpful.
Yes quality varies, but if you know a few good producers in the region, you’re sure to get wines that are typical of that region. That means that if you buy a Sancerre, it will be Sauvignon Blanc. And if it’s from a good producer, it will be minerally, acidic, and citrusy. If you buy Champagne, it will be bubbly and bready. Although it’s hard to learn what’s made where, it’s worth it to know that wines of the region are going to be reliable when you pick up a bottle. Although there are stinkers, usually what you expect is pretty much what you get when you buy an AOC wine, at least from a flavor profile standpoint.
- In light of homogenization and internationalization of wine, the AOC system preserves European wine growing and wine
making traditions that could otherwise be defunct.
If we don’t protect traditional winemaking techniques and wine regions, we could wind up with the most boring collection of wine in the world.
Wine is a business, but money can’t be the only thing that matters when we’re talking about historical protection. Are Jura or Muscadet the most popular appellations in the world? No way. And if we didn’t have protections for them, they would probably go away and the grapes growing there would go extinct. They’d follow the market and grow Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir and add to the pile of producers around the world making these wines.
But as we have the opportunity to discover and embrace these appellations anew, we get to taste history and to travel to small places in France — through our glass — that make wine in the way they’ve made it for centuries. Taking away terroir and historical protections is like stripping a region of its UNESCO Heritage Status and then expecting things to remain the same: without protection, places don’t get the interest or credence they need to survive. The protections and designations may be old fashioned and imperfect, but if they allow for the survival and easier marketing of new regions to wine lovers, I think they are great.
- Market dynamics will still reward the best, most traditionally strong producers in the region so crap wine made by cheating won’t survive for long in the international wine scene.
The internet makes information ever more available and we can quickly search and find out if what we’re looking at is something that’s worth our time (either through critics or through “crowdsourced” reviews in apps like ViVino or Cellar Tracker). Does it suck to be an importer and have to sort through the garbage that’s out there? Yes. But that’s what they get paid for and, fortunately for us, there are increasing numbers of reliable importers who sort the wheat from the chaff and make sure we aren’t faced with a sea of cheap, terrible wine from Bordeaux or Rhône or other regions where crap wine is all too often made under an AOC designation. Those who make bad wine in this global market don’t have much future. Cheaters will pay the punishing price of the market.
- And what of experimentation outside the AOC? I can’t abide by this argument either.
For wine outside the regulations, the system provides other delineations. There’s a table wine level with barely any restrictions that bears the country, the grape, and the vintage on the label. There’s a country wine (Vin de Pays) level that allows higher yields, diverse grape varieties, and loose labeling laws so wines can state the grape name. For both these designations, only 85% of grapes have to be from the region, so terroir is less of a concern and these areas are more like broad AVAs, to use the American term.Producers can and do use these levels for their more experimental projects. And what about their profits? I refer you to point 3. Make a good enough wine and people will take notice and pay for it, regardless of designation (just ask the Super Tuscan producers about that).
There are two sides to every story. And wine writers and European producers are quick to point out what’s wrong with the AOC system, but more than ever before – with better importers and the Internet at our disposal, this AOC system is a blessing for us as wine drinkers. It takes some of the guesswork out of wine buying and makes it less likely that we’ll go horribly wrong.
What do you think? Please drop a comment below!