France set to harvest its grapes of wrath

Wine scandal: Head of quality control says some vintages are 'undrinkab le' and crops are being doctored

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

Wine buffs may now have a less ideological reason for boycotting French wine than opposition to France's nuclear tests: some of it, apparently, is just plain bad - and that includes wine with the respected AC label, Appellation d'Origine Controlee.

The head of the national institute which monitors wine quality throughout France, Alain Berger, says AC wine is "sometimes undrinkable" and "occasionally scandalously bad". As well as criticising the inconsistency in the quality of such wines, Mr Berger singles out particular sins, such as the over-watering of vines and the addition of sugar to increase the alcohol content which, he says, producers have adopted to try to meet market demands.

Mr Berger's body, the National Institute of Appellations of Origin, is considering tasting the wine more systematically and possibly adding an extra national mark of approval. Mr Berger was responding to criticism made earlier this month in the French consumer magazine Que Choisir.

At present, the institute conducts laboratory tests on samples and also checks that the wine comes from the relevant area. These tests, however, are now deemed insufficiently rigorous to guarantee the quality of the wine. From next year's harvest (1996), they are to be intensified.

Until now, the AC designation has been relied upon by millions of wine drinkers, especially the new generation of buyers outside France, who regard it as a mark of reliable quality for a decent price. While wine specialists might demur, it appeared to offer something better than cheap "plonk", which was none the less more affordable than the grands crus.

To French wine drinkers, questions about the value of the AC will probably be less shocking. French wine-buying practices are very different from those of north Europeans. Supermarket shopping for wine has never caught on in the same way as it has in Britain and the selection and quality in French supermarkets often seems haphazard. Many French families still buy their wine direct from vineyards or specialist suppliers, and rely upon them to provide the quality they expect. They are happy to buy a wine with the lowly vin de table designation if it comes well recommended or they can taste it first. Some quality wine-growers had eschewed the AC system, preferring to rely on their good name alone.

For many French wine producers and exporters, however, the official querying of the AC's validity will come as an additional blow, following the likely damage of the north European and Australasian consumer boycott over France's nuclear tests. It will be especially hard because the AC was seen as a highly successful system.

As if to confirm one of the consumer magazine's criticisms, it became known this week that the same consumer standards body which originally queried the value of the AC has started an inquiry into this year's irrigation practices in the prestige wine-growing region of Chateauneuf du Pape, near Orange, in the south.

It is investigating reports that some vineyards were watered after 31 July, the date after which vines in the region are supposed to be left to the tender mercies of nature. Late watering is said to make the grape swell, so increasing the quantity of the wine, while reducing its quality.

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