Labour pains: birth of a French wine terroir

Christophe Peyrus remembers selling his wine for only a dozen francs in local markets.

Today he's a star winegrower in Pic Saint Loup, an outcropping of crumbling limestone near the Mediterranean, and importers in Tokyo and New York vie to buy his output at 10 times that price even before it leaves the barrel.

But success for Peyrus, 42, is bittersweet.

For no matter how many critics sing his praise, or how lavishly the market rewards his work, the recompense he most covets has, so far, been withheld.

Pic St. Loup may have risen toward the apex of France's wine hierarchy, but until it becomes an officially recognised wine region - an Appellation d'Origine Controle, or AOC - Peyrus will not feel fulfilled.

"After 20 years of work, we are ready to cross the threshold. When you grow up, you want to strike out on your own," he said during a recent visit of his domain, Clos Marie.

"The appellation deserves it," he added, speaking for the 30-odd vintners who first petitioned France's supreme wine authority - INAO, the Institut National de l'Origine et de la Qualite - for AOC status in 2002.

Few disagree. Influential wine maven Robert Parker calls Pic St. Loup, north of Montpellier, one of southern France's "most exciting regions for the 21st century." French critics are no less enthusiastic.

Its best red wines, anchored in Grenache and Syrah grapes, rival Rhone Valley bottles, made with the same varietals, costing two or three times as much.

But gaining a berth in the pantheon of French wines - even for an apparent shoo-in like Pic St. Loup - can be a frustrating and complex ordeal, as the region's long-suffering winegrowers have discovered.

"In the best of scenarios, it takes about five years," explained Gilles Flutet, an INAO official who oversees requests for AOC status.

"In some cases it can take 25, as happened for Saint Pourcain," a tiny appellation in the Loire Valley that was finally anointed in May 2009.

- 'Make this live again' -

--------------

So what is an AOC and why is it so sought after?

Even incurious wine drinkers have at least heard of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis or Champagne, but just how these mythical regions - which number more than 400 - come into being is little known.

The system was created in the mid-1930s mainly to protect marquee vineyards in Burgundy and Bordeaux from counterfeiters and fraud.

It also began to codify the French notion of "terroir", which holds that a unique ensemble of environmental conditions gives each wine region a signature taste. The same pinot noir grapes, for example, will yield different aromas in the Loire Valley's Sancerre compared to Burgundy's Cote d'Or.

But there is a human dimension as well.

"The relation between soil and vines is, of course, critical," said Flutet.

"But if you don't have men and women with a perfectly adapted savoir faire, then all you have left is technique - that's not terroir."

The right soil, exposure and micro-climate, in other words, are not enough: it takes decades of collective work to transform those elements into an extraordinary wine.

For Pic St. Loup, that laborious process started in the 1970s, when a young agronomist named Jean Orliac stumbled across a narrow valley of abandoned hillside vineyards nestled between two cliffs. One gave its name to the region's wine, the other to the domain he established in their shadow, L'Hortus.

"It was a wonderful challenge to say, 'I'm going to make this live again'," he recalled.

"The idea was not just to build a flourishing business" - which Orliac did, with more than 70 hectares (173 acres) under cultivation today - "but to redynamise the appellation, to create a kind of collective brand," embodied in the AOC, he added.

It took decades, but in 2006, INAO gave the region an informal thumbs up, suggesting that black-on-white recognition for the 25-square kilometre (nearly seven square miles) area was just around the corner.

But there was a problem: about that time, a group of winemakers in neighbouring communes demanded that INAO extend Pic St. Loup's territory to include their vineyards.

- 'Imagine the uniqueness' -

---------------

The vintners in what was suddenly the "historic" Pic Saint Loup would hear none of it, rejecting the bid as a last-minute attempt to cash in on their hard-earned reputation.

Adding the three little letters AOC to a bottle can boost the value of a wine by several fold.

"Let these other winemakers work together for 10 years to show what they can do, then we'll see," Orliac said at the time.

To settle the dispute, INAO formed an investigative committee composed of a soil scientist, an ethnographer, a historian, a geologist to see whether the vintners - united in an association called "At The Threshold of Pic St. Loup" - had a case.

Last July, they verdict was handed down: AOC status would be refused unless Pic Saint Loup welcomed their neighbours into the fold.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but INAO's ultimatum was accepted at a tense meeting of the Pic St. Loup winegrowers syndicate.

But a new idea has emerged that might allow the inner circle of vintners to carve out a separate identity all the same.

"We are working now on the idea that Pic Saint Loup could become the first appellation in France where one has to work organically to be included in the AOC," said Pierre Jequier, a Swiss architect-turned-winemaker and proprietor of Mas Foulaquier.

"Not everyone agrees, but if we crossed that threshold, imagine the notoriety - the uniqueness - we would have," he said, smiling at the prospect.

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