Magic of 'appellation controlee' evaporates

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The Independent Online

Wine Correspondent

Do you normally look for the magic words Appellation Controlee when buying your French wine as a guide to its quality and authenticity?

If so, think again. According to the results of a blind tasting in November's Que Choisir, France's answer to Which?, a panel of experts found themselves unable to distinguish their burgundies from their California chardonnays; their clarets from their New World cabernet sauvignons.

Putting his head on the block, as it were, Michel Bettane, one of France's leading wine writers, said the fact is that today, the words Appellation d'Origine Controlee are a guide neither to the quality nor authenticity of what you will find in the bottle.

You could hear the shock- waves reverberating from Paris to Papeete.

Developed at the turn of the century as a way of protecting French producers from imitation and fraud, the Appellation Controlee system is an institution in France and widely respected beyond its shores as the European model for designating and controlling regional names. Covering vast regions such as Bordeaux as well as obscure plots of rural vineyard, the system is as sacrosanct as Notre- Dame.

But not to Que Choisir, which complained that "too many growers prefer money over authenticity, as a result of which the system no longer protects the consumer".

There is little doubt that excessive yields and the over-extension of classic vineyard districts such as Chablis and Chateauneuf du Pape have contributed to the declining quality of French AC wines.

Equally, question marks arise over the validity of appellations such as Chatillon-en-Diois or Cotes du Ventoux, which appear to owe more to vested interests and political lobbying than the inherent quality of the vineyards.

And at approval tastings for AC status, unspoken economic pressures to pass wines destined for export as Appellation Controlee can be strong.

If the system started as a way of safeguarding traditions and reputations, there is increasing concern within the industry that bending the rules has undermined the quality and image needed to make AC wines more competitive.

In an unprecedented move, the entire board of the National Institute of Appellations (INAO), the system's controlling body, came to London in February this year to see how French wines could compete with the likes of New World chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon without having to change the concept on which appellation is based, namely French wine's sense of place.

In a recent communique, Alain Berger, director of the INAO admitted that there are wines which pass the Appellation Controlee test but which do not deserve AC status. With this in mind, Mr Berger has promised to set up more tests and better scrutiny.

The industry also acknowledges that further inroads need to be made on permitted yield levels and that the number of appellations (more than 400) should be cut back if the French wine industry is to tackle the consumer- friendly wines of the New World.