A.O.C : Aint’no Other Choice ?

4 mai 2015

We often divide the world of wine into two categories: the Old world and the New world.

Roughly, Old world being Europe and New world referring to Australia, New-Zealand, USA, South Africa and South-America.

The main difference between both worlds (besides the longevity of their wine History) being the style of the wine and the appellation system, very constraining in Europe and very opened in the New world.


So, who is right, who is wrong? Does the AOC system give supremacy to French wines compared to Chilean wines, for instance? Does it still make sense for winemakers, nowadays, to strictly follow technical specifications in order to get a “Name” on their label, whereas, it does not ensure the best taste? Shouldn’t everyone set its own standard in terms of techniques and taste?


In the New world, most labels are simple and straight forward (easy for the consumers to understand!).


typical Australian wine label


We can all see here that we are drinking Chardonnay and Shiraz from South Australia.


But, how can we ensure that this wine is not full of chemical products and sugar for instance? Where did the grapes grow exactly? What is the maximum yield per acre? Is it made of 100% of Chardonnay or is there a small blend? Does this wooden note come from barrel aging or from the use of oak chips?


So many questions can be asked.


And no way to find out mate. Unless you know the winemaker.


This is the reason why New world wines need a lot of marketing in order to enlighten the consumers and earn their trust. Branding is important. And of course, training and education.


And they do it quite well. In a lot of emerging markets, it seems easier to understand New world wines compared to Bordeaux or Burgundy labels for instance. And many consumers do not really care about what is inside the bottle and how it is made, really. Shame.


On the other hand, AOC system is extremely restrictive.


Generally, wines labeled within a specific appellation have to follow those rules*:
  • Be produced within, and contain grapes only grown within, the specified
  • Use only permissible grape varieties and adhere to specified varietal amounts.
  • Produce less than the specified maximum yield of grapes per hectare.
  • Contain between the designated minimum and maximum alcohol percentage.
  • Adhere to predetermined vineyard practices, winemaking practices and aging techniques.
  • Pass chemical analysis and typicity tests.

The INAO’s (National Institute of AOC) duty is to guarantee that the wine in the bottle corresponds to the name on its label.

Well, at least with this system my friend, you know a bit more about what the winemaker did put inside that bottle you are drinking. But does it mean the wine will be good? Will this wine be better than that Vin de Pays just because it says “AOC Cotes du Rhône” on its label?


Well, not always. At least, you don’t know until you taste it.


What you know for sure on the other hand, is that 21 grapes are legally authorized in Cote du Rhône AOC. But what if I want to produce a single variety wine (100% Grenache as an example) in this area? Well, by law, my wine will not be able to bear the “prestigious” name of Cote du Rhône, as only blends are permitted by this AOC.


Wow. Yes, the wine is delicious, but it will be a generic wine. No AOC. Deal with it.


an Excellent 100% Grenache wine from Rhone Valley area declassified in Table Wine


Another bad point for the AOC is the sad standardization of taste the whole system is leading to.


Indeed, in order to get eligible by the INAO and receive the right to put an AOC on your label, you have to present 2 samples: one will go through chemical analysis. If the wine passes the first round, it goes through a second test: the taste of the wine.


If the wine does not taste the way the AOC should taste, then it cant receive the right to bear the AOC on their label. Most of the time, those wines are declassified to Table wines (today called “Vin de France”, it sounds more chic).


VERY misleading for the consumers, who often associate Table wine to “cheap charlie vinegar”.


So, does it mean that there is no way to innovate if you want to preserve the AOC? Shall the winemaker take the risk to get declassified, in order to get more flexibility? It’s a big risk to take, as even if you want to follow your heart, commercial rules are still important. At the end of the day, everybody needs to sell.


In France, a few winemakers have decided to fight the system, and create their own rules. That’s the case of Alain Dejean (Domaine Rousset-Peraguey) who got excluded from Sauternes appellation as he deliberately refused to follow the rules. Alain Dejean produces “nature wines” – meaning, no use of neither chemical nor technological intervention in growing grapes and making them into wines – and his 100% natural techniques prevents him from respecting the deadlines set by the AOC. Moreover, the taste of its Sauternes is not totally in line with what the AOC demands.


Luckily, his charisma and the big noise made around his story lead to the fact that his “Table wine – from Sauternes” is still selling well today.


Alain Dejean, on the left, explaining his battle against Sauternes AOC


But how many like him?


Some smartasses have decided to play on the New world field by producing French wine with a total New world look. That’s the case of “Fat Bastard”, a branded wine produced in South of France and very popular everywhere…. But in France!
Fat Bastard wine – the company is… in Gigondas !


How many of its fans know that they are actually drinking French? And do they really care?


We cannot ban the AOC system. Not only because it is right to have specifications and regulations that have helped prestigious wine regions to shine throughout the world, but also, it sets a minimum of standard to guarantee the quality of what is inside a bottle.


But the whole is system is not up to date, dusty and very conservative. It prevents Old World from innovating and taking risks.


The golden AOCs such as Champagne and Bordeaux put the commercial and export issues on the first stage. Commanding and imposing a lot of constraints to ensure that the region can reply to the global demand for their wines. If you don’t want to play the game, sell away your vines.


Are we really preserving our “Heritage” or actually imposing rules only to sell more?


Isn’t the New world, a bit right and aren’t we, somehow, a bit hypocrites?



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