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French wine bearing the respected Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AC) has been described as "sometimes undrinkable" and "occasionally scandalously bad" by the head of the organisation that monitors the quality of French wine.

Alain Berger, director of the National Institute of Appellations of Origin, said that more rigorous testing would be introduced for the 1996 vintage to ensure that the AC designation was not discredited.

The situation is considered so serious that France's official consumer- standards body, which comes under the finance ministry, says it is considering the introduction of a special national mark for AC wines that came up to standard. This would be intended to reinforce the appellation, which is designated regionally.

The AC designation has been widely trusted, especially by foreign wine- buyers, as a sign of reliable quality at a reasonable price. But Mr Berger said some wine producers, succumbing to market pressures, were over-watering their vines or adding sugar to enhance the alcohol content. "Abuses" were on the increase.

David Howse, spokesman for Threshers Wines, said yesterday: "In January this year, we accepted seven or eight French clarets and we rejected more than 1,500 samples.

"French wine dealers have had it so easy for so long, they think 'Why try?' The AC label means it has reached a standard but it is only like saying you have passed a GCSE, whether it's an A pass or an F pass. And recently the French have been turning in F marks instead of A marks."

Janet Lee, PR and technical controller for Tesco's beers, wines and spirits department, was also "not at all surprised" by the news. "Tesco wine-testers don't rely on the AC system and never would," she said. "We draw up specifications to make sure our wine is consistent."

Mr Berger and the French consumer-standards body was responding to severe criticism of the poor quality and inconsistency of AC wines that appeared in the magazine Que Choisir, France's equivalent of Which? The Appellation Controlee, the magazine said, was no longer "synonymous with quality". No sooner had its criticism appeared in print than it was disclosed that a separate inquiry had been mounted into possible over-watering this summer in the Chateauneuf du Pape wine-growing area in southern France.

The amount of French wine designated AC has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, to reach 22 million hectolitres.

Grapes of wrath, page 15