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Generic French Wine: Pourquoi Pas?

by David on February 6, 2007

“Vignobles de France” This is big, if it happens.  The French have proposed a new approach to wine labeling that will allow not only a varietal designation, but will permit producers to blend wines from different parts of France together to produce a style of wine that appeals to specific markets. And these specific markets, being mainly new-world markets, will actually be able to understand what’s on the label. That’s huge.

Picture this: some guy in Duluth, trying to impress his date with his savoir faire, can serve her a French wine (How do they maintain their snob appeal after all these years?), and yet he’ll also be able to select his grape variety of choice and feel that he knows what he’s buying. On top of that the flavor profile may well be targeted to his palate, for instance the Chardonnay may include grapes from the warmer parts of France in order to please the American preference for abundant fruit and soft acidity – probably agood kick of oak, too.

Just a few months ago I wrote about some conversations I had with French producers that indicated a possible move in this direction, but I don’t think too many of us thought something so major would come this quickly! It’s not a done-deal yet, but could be implemented as early as this spring.Of course, the producers in the Languedoc are vehemently opposed to the idea because, in tandem with a push to increase quality in the region, they pioneered the use of varietal designations on French labels. They want the Languedoc appellation to get to the place where it commands respect and view this potential for widespread varietal, appellation-free labeling as eroding their considerable efforts. Their marketing savvy has taken this region from one that drew sniffs of derision (the appellation still makes me nervous) to one that is second only to new-world producers (specifically Australia, Chile and the U.S.) as an exporter of wine with a varietal designation. It’s easy to understand their concern.

And others are against the concept because French wine has always been about terroir. But, do we really want or need the “terroir” of a $12.00 wine from a so-so growing region? I don’t think anyone expects to see a change in labeling practices among wines that come from noble regions. This will be used as a tool to move truck loads of moderately priced wines, not cases of the great stuff.You can see it as kind of meeting in the middle. After the repeal of prohibition California wine was reborn as mostly generic plonk and it’s only now, after decades and decades of study and trial and error blended with copious quantities of blood, sweat and tears, that we’ve evolved to the point where our best wines are indeed beginning to reflect a sense of place. And I don’t think our low-end “California” wines take anything away from our best vineyard designates any more than you’d think that our friend in Duluth has somehow hurt one of the great houses of Corton-Charlemagne by serving a $12.00 French wine called Chardonnay.

Anyway, it looks as if we might have the opportunity to purchase wine labeled “Vignobles de France,” which supplies about as much information as buying a wine with a “California” appellation. Maybe table wine for every day tastes better if it’s blended to combine the best of one region with another. I don’t know.

But I do know that this idea beats the heck out of converting French wine into something that heats their homes or runs their cars. Merde!!

When I wrote before, I said it would be interesting to fast-forward 10 or 15 years to see what happens. I guess I should have said 10 or 15 weeks. Germany is rapidly figuring out how to appeal to the new-world market (stand back!) even if they don’t get as much attention. Stay tuned…

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