Regulation… that's what you need: European wine law reforms don't go far enough

Drinks: Wines
Location: Europe, France
Other: Business

Wine rules they are a-changin’ across Europe. But while the EU has got it right, France has missed the boat. Hamish Anderson reports

There seems to be an inordinate amount of tinkering and reform, within European wine law at the moment. The big news is the raft of EU changes that came into effect on 1 August and will (hurrah) end the system that sees hundreds of millions of euros wasted annually on turning wine that no-one wants into industrial spirit. Eminently sensible, as is the plan to display grape varieties on the label, and to spend the money saved on distillation subsidies on promotion instead.

These changes are spot on. If France, Italy and Spain are to take on the Australians, Californians et al, the key lies in marketing their wines like the New World, not in trying to make wines that taste like the competition.

France has simultaneously unveiled its reforms. Vin de Pays (henceforth Indication Géographique Protégée) gets the biggest shake-up, with some decidedly New World practices such as acidification and vinification with wood chips now sanctioned.

Frankly, in my view, they don’t go far enough. Most appear producer- rather than consumer-led, while the top tier of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (now Appellation d’Origine Protégée) remains unchanged.

What was needed was tightening, not slackening, of regulations. With a few honourable exceptions (Austria), wine laws within individual countries as an instrument of quality control fail dismally. Most wines in ‘quality’ regions such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Chablis, Bordeaux and Champagne would not find their way onto a wine list put together by any self-respecting sommelier. These are the wines that do untold damage to France’s image.

Two recent stories from France piqued my interest and demonstrate that despite the best efforts of European administrators, individual countries and regions will, if left to their own devices, generally do their best to shoot themselves in the foot.

The latest proposal from Alsace

is one of the most ludicrous

I have ever heard

In Alsace, a proposal is being mooted to ban the varietal from the label of Grand Cru wines. This comes not from some deranged grower but from the Alsace Vintners Association (AVA) – although this would not be France unless there were a spicy sub-plot and some vested interests at work. President of the Grand Cru section of the AVA is Jean-Michel Deiss, a man who already sells his Grand Crus without a varietal.

The proposal is one of the most ludicrous I have ever heard. The sheer arrogance of it is breathtaking, as it expects the consumer to suddenly become acquainted with 50-plus Grand Crus and their individual characteristics. It is madness of the highest order, not lost on the 300 or so vintners who signed an open letter opposing the changes.

While I really cannot see how the above changes will be ratified, there was no such luck for the producers within the Chaume region of Coteaux du Layon. In the space of seven vintages, it has metamorphosed from Coteaux du Layon Chaume to Chaume, Premier Cru des Coteaux du Layon, then plain old Chaume and, surprise surprise, back to Coteaux du Layon Chaume.

With more twists and turns, infighting and Gallic noses out of joint than an Eastenders plot line, the one factor missing from this whole sorry tale is any sort of awareness of the consumer.

I admit that as I get older I am beginning to take a more laissez-faire attitude to presenting wines on my list. Whereas once I was obsessed with accurate presentation, exactly as the label stated, I now take liberties. So when my house sweet wine, which I have been listing for years, turned up labelled simply as Chaume, I just reverted to its original name. Oddly, no customer has yet pointed out my technical error…

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – September / October 2009

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