France uncorks a tale of snobbery and trickery in the wine trade

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The Independent Online

Is wine a work of art? Or is it a commodity, to be traded and speculated on in the same way as oil or pork bellies? Or is it an opportunity for fraud? France produces the best-known wines in the world. It also produces endless controversies about the true nature of wine and the wine business.

Is wine a work of art? Or is it a commodity, to be traded and speculated on in the same way as oil or pork bellies? Or is it an opportunity for fraud? France produces the best-known wines in the world. It also produces endless controversies about the true nature of wine and the wine business.

Several controversies have become entwined in the past few weeks, like vines around a trellis wire. The latest is yesterday's revelation that three wine traders in Burgundy, and seven other people, are under criminal investigation for mixing cheap, generic wines with expensive ones, and for sticking labels denoting high quality on inferior wines.

Police believe tens of thousands of bottles - possibly hundreds of thousands - have been fraudulently sold. They include some of the best-known, and most expensive, names, such as Beaune premier cru, Pommard premier cru, Volnay, GevreyChambertin, Meursault premier cru and Nuits-Saint-georges.

The scandal follows the findings of a test of 28,000bottles of French appellationcontrollée wines by the Guide Hachette des Vins. Almost two-thirds of the bottles failed to meet the standards required by the government-controlled appellation system.

Two other arguments are raging in France about the true nature of wine. The first was started by a daring proposal from the Paris Bourse to launch the world's first, fully organised market in wine futures in July, specialising in 141 of the best Bordeaux labels.

"Heresy," said some château owners. Fine wine is not a vulgar raw material, like copper or wheat. It should not be become the object of financial speculation.

Speculative buying of the best Bordeaux labels and other wines has existed for years. Euronext, the company that runs the Paris stock exchange, has proposed a codified system for buying wine "futures" six months before the grapes are picked. They say such a system would give the producers a guaranteed minimum price, whatever the quality of the harvest. It could also help wine buyers and consumers by preventing the huge leaps in the price of the leading Bordeaux labels seen in the late 1990s.

Some château owners and wine traders have welcomed the idea. Others, including some of the best-known Bordeaux names, have rejected it as "mischievous". Their protests are somewhat undermined because many of the great Bordeaux estates engage in speculation of their own. The ramp in raw (ie unmatured) Bordeaux prices in the late 1990s were driven by the châteaux themselves. Château-gate prices are supposedly determined by supply and demand.

In reality, they are fixed by the leading estates, according to what the producers think they can get away with. A wine futures market might threaten this cosy system.

The second argument about the nature of wine was started by one of France's greatest oenological authorities, Michel Le Gris, in a new book Dionysos Crucifié ( Dionysos Crucified).

Mr Le Gris takes issue with other wine writers who have claimed that the best wines are "works of art". Such mystical claims, Mr Le Gris protests, are a cover for a stealthy change in the philosophy and commercial practices of some vineyards.

This is nothing to do with the kind of outright fraud suspected among a few traders in Burgundy. The wine-making methods Mr Le Gris objects to are legal but they turn wine into an industrial product, instead of an agricultural one.

The great French wine tradition, he says, was based on an infinite variety of local tastes and styles, drawn from differences of soil and microclimate (summed up in the untranslatable French word terroir).

The modern trend, he complains, is towards "artifice and trickery". The temptation is to tamper with the taste, to smooth over local differences, to "conquer markets" and appeal to simple categories of consumer tastes.

The problem with this argument, as Mr Le Gris recognises, is that the "authentic" French tradition is often let down by sheer bad wine-making, hiding under the label of local distinctiveness. (Hence the temptation by an unscrupulous minority to cheat).

New World wines and those French wines made in the more processed, New World styles may be dull but they are at least predictable in quality.

The Guide Hachette des Vins recently tested 28,000 wines that qualified for an Appellation d'Origine, supposedly a guarantee of the authentic local taste, which Mr Le Gris champions. Only 9,000 wines scored two or more points in the five-point classification system. The others were declared to be "faulty" (0 points) or "poor to average" (1 point).

Most of the inferior wines were from the cheaper producers and lesser-known regions. None the less, the results suggest - not for the first time - that there is something wrong with the system of Appellation d'Origine, which is supposed to be France's oenological pride and joy.

The Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, the organisation that polices French wines, has pledged to introduce tougher quality standards. In future, the institute says, it wants to control not just the final product but to inspect Appellation Controllée vineyards at every stage in the wine-growing process.

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