Having a system to tell you the quality of a wine is a very cool concept. Isn’t it? Well, yes and know. When you look at the French wine laws (the AOC system) that have been in effect since the 1930s, you see the positives and the negatives. This article will focus on the downsides of the French wine laws.
Downsides: Label confusion
Let’s start with the wine label. Here is a typical French wine label.
You can see that the label is very informative. It provides all kinds of information, except for one key item – the varietal. The French focus on terroir (the grape’s growing environment) dictates that an AOC wine label only provide information about the appellation, not about the grape. You are expected to know what grape goes with what appellation. According to Winepros.org, “It seems that the average wine-drinking consumer is perfectly willing to learn a few dozen grape varieties to help make their purchases, but totally unwilling to learn the thousands of French appellations, especially when AOC rules prevent most producers from displaying grape varieties on their labels.”
Also, there are cases where towns share names with appellations. If the town of origin of a wine contains a controlled appellation in its name, the producer is in a dilemma. They are required by law to identify the place of origin on the label but prohibited by law from using the full town’s name unless the wine is an approved AOC wine. Not easy.
Downsides: Terroir above all else
At the heart of the AOC system is the importance of terroir and its impact on the wine’s character and quality. Wineanorak.com claims that “the French overstate the influence of the vineyard site and downplay the role of the winemaker…There is an assumption that great wine is a consequence of a great vineyard site and that all the winemaker has to do is allow this greatness to show by not interfering too much.” I think most people would acknowledge that terroir and winemaking both play a role. But the AOC system focuses almost exclusively on terroir.
MoreThanOrganic.com goes even further by saying that “you can make a very bad wine on a great piece of land. You can seriously damage the quality of your land by drowning it with chemical sprays. But if you work in a prestigious AOC, you don’t need to worry. It’s the label that sells the wine.”
Downsides: Quality issues
A blind taster must approve the wine for it to receive AOC classification. However, the blind tasting often occurs before the product is bottled, and often by a local expert who has ties to the local vintners.
The good and the bad
The good news about the AOC system is that it is the model for regulatory systems around the world. The system helped to protect many of the high quality French winemakers at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a high incidence of fraud in the industry. It also helped to formalize and promote the important concept that certain terroirs are better suited to certain varietals. It undoubtedly could benefit from some updating. That is what my next and final article in this series will cover.
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