Appellation d’origine contrôlée…ah, the hate-love relationship we all have with this beautiful, yet aggravating appellation system. The French always used long-ass terms to describe where their wine came from and what it was, still telling you nothing until you actually try it and do your research. And on top of all this, guess what they love to say to this? Well, only a true expert can feel the wine before opening it, that’s where the real magic lies. WHAT? You’re telling me that every single person out there that just wants to buy a nice bottle of Bordeaux (blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc btw) and drown his everyday sorrows in alcohol needs to FIND THE MAGIC? That’s like telling a homeless person that his first million is just around the corner, but he just has to figure out how to stop drinking from AIDS-infected milk cartons, get out of the dumpster and start a cooking show.
A long time ago, when history was being written, a certain producer did not dare to put the specific grape variety on his label because of the above-mentioned system, which basically delineates which varieties can be grown where, along with what percentage of each can be mixed into that region’s final blend. Each name that is printed on the label is legislated, and (so long as you are educated) implicitly states the names of the grapes which are contained within it. Ergo, when you are buying a “Rhone blend” you know you are buying a wine made of Syrah, Grenache and/or Mourvedre grapes, but to know what percentage of each are included you would probably need to know the name of the sub-appellation or even producer to be sure of what you’re drinking.
So why have the French switched this up all of sudden? One word – marketing. French winemakers see themselves as “growing” wine, not just a varietal, thus the location is just as important as the grape (what is known as terroir) and they view the expression of their product as unique to its birthplace. To a Burgundian you are not drinking Pinot Noir, you are drinking Burgundy. The New World wines were precluded from calling their wines “Claret”, Burgundy or say Tokay by international agreement. So they converted to just slapping the variety onto the label. Then they began making and exporting “modern” wines that were exceptionally drinkable, at moderate prices. In many countries that previously imported high volumes from France, this restricted the market for French wines (e.g. the London market, which is now being flooded by exceptionally delicious Australian and NZ wines). As much as we would like to be poetic, this is business, people. No hard feelings. But don’t get all butthurt just yet. In reality, French wines will NEVER hit rock bottom, but the true facts indicate that their sales are in slight decline in comparison to a couple of decades ago.
It is important to know that the large majority of wine made in France has been of significantly lesser quality than these New World wines. For example, vin ordinaire – in France is as undrinkable today as it was 50 years ago, but on the other hand, there are some wonderful wines made under the “classed growth” system, but very little sells for those high prices. Today, the French vineyards and wineries are being hit by two factors – global open trading and the reduction of wine as a quaffing beverage in France itself. Many have not survived the testing and there are many that may soon disappear – for even without taxes (few taxes on wine in France), it is very difficult to be profitable on the median price of €8.00 a bottle (retail). So how to really dig into the middle ground? The average consumer is looking for two things – a recognizable grape variety and a name they can pronounce. It is certainly not impossible to satisfy both sides of the game, it’s just a question to what extent will pride go. Of course, established brands like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or Lafite couldn’t give two shits about this, but what is with the new school producers who decide to go against the waves? Nobody is saying “blindly follow trends”, but rather “try to use the tools available to you in the modern world to your advantage”. Because, two decades from now, when information becomes abundant and starts ridiculously passing us by, rare are those who will truly dedicate to researching some guy’s wine. People will probably start getting pissed because their app didn’t open up in 0.7 seconds. There, you’ve got bigger problems already.
Written by Aleksandar Draganić.
I’m a WSET certified grape juice drinker, and yes, I’m that 1% of people that love their job. I drink wine, write about it, preach about it, even take pictures of it. Find me at @grapenomad