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Times, They Are A-Changin’

by David on October 16, 2006

As I wrote earlier in the Culinary Getaways a la Provencal entry (I know… when is this woman ever going to shut up about Provence, already??!!!), Colleen, our proprietor, and I have recently been slurping up as much wine (and food!) as we possibly could in the limited time we had in Provence and the southern Rhone. What a time…

In the course of events we had the opportunity to sit down with a few vintners over a way-indulgent meal and really get to talking. You just can’t beat sharing a meal for bringing out what people really want to talk about compared to the polite discourse of a winery visit.

Anyway, Colleen and I noticed that every owner, producer, distributor, whomever we talked to volunteered that the French really need to pull themselves out of the Dark Ages in terms of marketing and labeling. They believe that even the French find the labels too complicated to understand.

One vintner, Allan Wilson of Chateau St. Esteve de Neri, put it in terms that rang a very familiar bell with me. I was unaware that some quality producers have begun de-classifying themselves from the top-of-the-line AOC classification to “Vin de Pays” (three rungs down on the 4-rung French-classification ladder) in order to produce 100% varietal wines, or to blend as they please and very importantly, to put the varietal name on the label.

What this means, from a practical standpoint, is if they call the wine Cotes de Provence they are limited in their choice of grape varieties, viticultural and winemaking practices and may not put a varietal name on the label. So, they say “the heck with it” and de-classify either to express themselves artistically or have a fighting chance of selling it or both. They know that most new-world consumers, who they very much want as their customers, are going to walk in to their local retailers and ask for a Chardonnay or a Syrah and that it will be the exceptional consumer that asks for a Chateau d’I-can’t pronounce-this, from “Les-never-heard-of-it” vineyard.

The deal is, that unless you’re one of the top chateaux in whatever region, you’re probably having trouble moving your wine. It’s very ironic that the stratospheric price of 2005 Bordeaux futures from the top houses is the subject of outraged, incredulous debate while lesser known producers fight for shelf space and some AOC producers in Bordeaux are even having their wine converted into fuel. C’est terrible.

It’s complicated. The French are drinking less wine, for starters. The new world has flooded the market with attractive, well-made, very affordable wines and Spain and southern Italy are coming on strong as competitors. The dollar is weak compared to the euro making the competition yet more difficult.

I don’t think anyone believes it’s a quality issue. Every wine-producing region is guilty of putting out some yucky stuff, but the French no more than anyone else.

It seems the two main forces at work are government regulations regarding both production methods and labeling laws that may no longer serve the interest of the majority of French producers and complacence regarding marketing. Among some producers the attitude is that “it’s enough to be French” and that its reputation will carry the day.

That certainly wasn’t the opinion of any producers we met. If what we saw (and it was a handful of people) is a reflection of the general attitude among French vintners then you can expect to see big changes in the way French wine is marketed and perhaps labeled in the near future. I’m not talking about the great houses. But, there’s room for movement in the mid-price Vin de Pays, which make up a significant part of French production. The proposed changes will allow producers to be more responsive to their environment, consumer preference and market conditions.

Major problem: Some important regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy don’t allow the Vin de Pays option. Probably a matter of pride. So, a war is brewing in an effort to change that. It’s not going to happen easily. And the INAO has promised to become more restrictive regarding labeling regulations, not less. If they have their way, you’ll be able to buy a wine called Chardonnay from the Languedoc, for instance, but not if it’s from Burgundy, it’s venerable home. Ouch! This makes my head hurt!

If the laws don’t change, you can bet the producers will. People always find a way. As Allan said, it’s already starting to happen. This whole de-classifying business sure brings to mind Tuscany in the 60s and 70s. Great producers like Antinori became frustrated with hand-tying DOC laws and just labeled their made-as-I-please wine Vino de Tavola. Of course, we now know them as Super-Tuscans and they get quite a premium for their “table wine.”

Some quality French producers have already gone that way. They source grapes, choose their varieties and blend almost as they see fit (within the Vin de Pays regulations for the region) and call it Vin de Pays or even Vin de Table. Of course, to get any kind of respect or remuneration for these wines the producer must have a fine reputation already. But these respected producers, as they were in Italy, are the trail blazers. Guess what’s happened in Italy since the Super-Tuscans came about? The laws have adjusted.

It would be fun to fast forward 10 or 15 years, to see what happens, but it should be interesting in the meantime. Stay tuned…

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