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Languedoc to Bid Adieu to Appellations? ... Comentario de / Comment of Wines Inform Assessors

Languedoc to Bid Adieu to Appellations?

Winemakers in the south of France are calling for another revolution – this time against bureaucracy.

© CIVL | Rumbles of discontent are growing among Languedoc winemakers.
By James Lawrence | Posted Saturday, 04-Mar-2017

Just as French chefs fervently defend their country's gastronomic heritage, so too is the AOC (appellation) system considered infallible by France's numerous wine bureaucrats – but have winemakers had enough of the red tape?
Today, there are over 350 AOCs in France, a system which first started in the 1930s, when the INAO – Institut National des Appellations d'Orgine – came into being. The organization is now responsible for regulating thousands of products of origin, and should, at least in theory, be maintaining quality standards, in addition to defining regional boundaries and controlling production methods.

However, not everyone is a fan of the complexities of France's AOC framework. In 2010, Valérie Pajotin, director of Anivin de France, said that French wine was in danger of ending up "like Coca Cola" – and many producers opting out of appellation systems in favor of adopting a generic Vins de France brand. The category allows French producers to blend wines across different regions to produce wines consistent in quality and style.

"France is one of largest wine producers in the world and the maker of the most famous wines in the world, yet many wine drinkers in France do not know grape varieties," said Pajotin.

But while Anivin cannot force growers to switch allegiances from their traditional appellations – INAO authority outranks Anivin – producers in the Languedoc region are increasingly sidelining appellation frameworks in favor of supposedly inferior designations.

It is precisely this freedom to make wines outside of the AOC system that many producers regard as the region's most important selling point. "It's vital to remember that the Languedoc has fewer traditions to respect than, say, Burgundy, and so winemakers in the region are far more willing to experiment and innovate than in other parts of France," says Jean- Claude Mas, owner of Domaines Paul Mas.

It's a sentiment wholeheartedly endorsed by Domaine Sainte Rose owner Ruth Simpson. She makes a range of wines outside of the appellation frameworks, including an excellent traditional method sparkling. "Our rationale was that we wanted to grow grapes and make wines that the marketplace demanded, not what the appellation system said should be made," says Simpson.

"The appellation system is extremely limiting and outdated with regard to the varieties you are allowed to grow and the viticultural and winemaking techniques you can apply. We have now also made the decision to move our methode traditionnelle sparkling wines into the Vin de France category, due to ridiculous political wrangling between the IGP ruling body and the Crémants de France ruling body."

Domaine Gayda is another fresh face in Languedoc-Rousillon that attributes little value to historic French wine law. "We planted our vineyards according to our terroir but, unfortunately, our choices were forbidden by the local authorities. So we elected to work within the IGP Pays d'Oc, which allows more freedom in the range of grapes that can be used," says winemaker Vincent Chansault.

"The appellations rules, especially in the larger zones, are probably not adapted to the energy and passion of the emerging generation, helping to shape the region's future. Especially when they impose layers upon layers of restrictions, specifying a strict style, what the wine should taste like, etc. I know lots of friends who don't produce AOC anymore just because of the waste of time, effort, and energy the French bureaucracy imposes. But most of them, and I include myself, would make AOC if they'd just trust us to make good wine – we need a revolution!"

Nonetheless, it is clear that this approach increasingly being adopted by the new guard is driven by commercial sense as much as idealism. Savvy domaines continue to focus their energy on building a robust presence across key export markets, painfully aware of the fact that the French are still largely unreceptive to the idea of premium Languedoc wines. "France is still a very traditional market; French consumers have not historically ascribed any real value to wines from the Languedoc," admits Mas.

Therefore, the freedom of the IGP is an obvious choice – producers can emphasize the grape variety on the label rather than the region, which is today the key purchasing cue for Millennials. Moreover, growers point out that the Languedoc's myriad appellations will probably never be understood by consumers.

But in a wider sense, this growing abandonment of appellations is surely a case of history repeating itself. Indeed, departures from appellations are far from unknown in Europe – Chianti is a prime example of this, a region that started to rebel against its stultifying regulations decades ago by selling its wines as mere Vino da Tavola.

Big name producers like Artadi and Antinori have been successful outside the appellation system.
© Artadi/Antinori | Big name producers like Artadi and Antinori have been successful outside the appellation system.

Fast forward 45 years and the improvements in winemaking, including better clonal selection and an overhaul of the ridiculous regulations which forbade 100-percent Sangiovese wines have been significant. Would they have happened had the Super-Tuscan Revolution not occurred? "It's highly unlikely," notes Albiera Antinori.

Meanwhile, leading premium Spanish producers continue to vote with their feet, including Raventos I Blanc in Penedes and former Rioja producer Artadi. In February 2015, the winery sent shockwaves through the Rioja region after they announced their decision to leave the appellation structure – an unprecedented occurrence in the zone.
Their proposal, to henceforth market all their wines under the basic Vino de Mesa designation, was met with a mixture of disbelief and admiration; particularly as Artadi is a leading producer of super-premium Rioja, with the top label, El Pison, selling for $257 a bottle. So why did they do it?

"The Rioja DO (appellation) is simply too large," said owner Juan-Carlos Lopez de Lacall, pointing out that it covers 63,137 hectares (156,000 acres), according to the census of 2013. "There is no other singular appellation covering such a large vineyard area – Rioja is a designation that gives no due recognition to any differential in vineyard quality and it is for this reason that we have been forced to leave the DO".

Of course, there are key differences between the situation in Tuscany, Spain and Languedoc, but the basic principle remains the same: dissatisfaction with stifling regulation is encouraging winemakers to directly challenge the inadequacies of their appellations. Some make a fuss, while others simply sidestep archaic appellations altogether.

All of which calls into question whether appellations are becoming irrelevant, or even harmful? For while AOCs like Chablis remain globally recognized, and enable lackluster producers to hide behind its good name, the Languedoc's many obscure appellations arguably detract from the progress that has been achieved over the past decade.
"Unfortunately, I think that, as a result of the traditional French appellation system and established assumptions about the area, Languedoc wines will only ever be able to command a certain price point, which is a crying shame as in many cases these wines are worth a lot more," notes Simpson.

Some have even called for their complete disbandment. "This sidelining of appellations for IGP designations is wonderful – the public are not interested in AC status, rather they care about how the wine tastes. My only reservation is that prices are a little high, but put the wines in a blind tasting with more established areas and you will see that they stand up," says UK merchant Ted Sandbach.

In contrast, others take a more cautious line. "We believe it is good to have both IGP and AOC wines. The AOC rules were created in part to refocus on the production of quality wines and to protect the terroirs, so it is not surprising that AOC wines are our heartland as they generally offer more balance and complexity," argues Nathalie Arnaud-Bernard of Domaine de Nizas.

"Sidelining appellations in favour of IGP/Pays d'Oc is a double-edged sword I believe. In one instance it does give more freedom to the producer. My favorite Languedoc property is Mas de Daumas Gassac. If ever there was an argument to go against creating an AOC wine, that winery would be it. It stands alone and its top wines are labelled as IGP," adds US-based sommelier Max Kast.

"However, does this mean that all producers striving to make great wine from the Languedoc should do the same? I don't think so, because then the regions stand to lose what makes them unique in the first place. There are so many great appellations in the Languedoc that it makes sense for them to begin to become more well-known in the US – Faugere, Minervois, Pic Saint-Loup and Picpoul de Pinet for example. And remember that although consumers care about the variety, it is the region and the winery that gives the wine its story."

Nonetheless, it is equally undeniable that this New World approach adopted by a growing number of wineries has empowered the Languedoc to make headway in export markets and to create some formidably strong brands – something of a rarity in France. This new guard are driving a revolution in quality winemaking, with innovation, experimentation and a fresh approach to marketing and communication.

All concepts discouraged by the archaic sensibilities of France's appellation system.

Comentario de  / Comment of Wines Inform Assessors:

Pienso que la decisión de dejar una denominación de origen por una prestigiosa empresa que hace buenos productos pretende reforzar la personalidad de la bodega

Un ejemplo sería las bodegas de la D.O. Penedès (Catalunya, España) utilizando la variedad local "Sumoll" no aceptada por el D.O. y que utilizan otras denominaciones para etiquetar sus vinos

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I think that the decision to leave a denomination of origin by a prestigious company that makes good products is intended to reinforce the personality of the winery

An example would be wineries of the D.O. Penedès (Catalonia, Spain) using the local variety "Sumoll" not accepted by the D.O.  that use other Appellations to label his wines

Wines Inform Assessors

Origin information: Wine Searcher

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