New AOC Rules: Forgive me for yawning

There are significant changes afoot with new rules surrounding the Appellation Contrôlée system. From the 1st July it’s all change: previous controls about guaranteeing the authenticity of a wine from Bordeaux are being replaced by, er, a brand new set of controls.  The changes are for the good, just like stopping drink-driving is for the good, but we’ll have to wait and see just how well the whole scheme is implemented and policed.

I was invited to what I thought was going to be a routine meeting this afternoon, between a few fellow vignerons and a Directeur from the Syndicat de Bordeaux.  I realised when I walked in to the Salle André Lurton in Grézillac that the session might go on for a bit longer than I had anticipated, as there were 200 people in the room and more arriving.  There was a choice of standing room only at the back, or a seat in the front row, and I realised my mistake in opting for the latter when the main presenter gave everyone a peep at just how many Powerpoint slides he was about to share with us all as he set up his laptop with the overhead projector. There was to be no escape.

To be fair, Monsieur de la Bretesche certainly understood his topic, and he introduced the reforms by saying that, after two years labour, this was the 16th and final revision of the new rulebook.  Worryingly, there wasn’t much humour in his voice when he said this, and it was clear that here is a man who is absolutely committed to his work. I imagine that all he has ever thought or talked about for years are the rules for those involved with the production and distribution of wines of the Appellation of Bordeaux Supérieur and AC Bordeaux.  He pointed out that Bordeaux is at the forefront of all the changes that are about to happen across France, in terms of putting rules into practice.

He presented the new plan for the next three hours, pausing for breath only when he was asked a question.  (It was a bit like parents’ meetings at schools here: instead of waiting to ask a question at the end of a presentation about a school trip, anyone can chirp up with a query; it wastes an awful lot of time.)  God knows how long the meeting would have carried on for if France had not being playing Italy in the Euros this evening.

It was hugely informative but I have to admit that, like the flopsy bunnies after they had eaten cabbages from Mr. Macgregor’s garden, I found some parts quite soporific.  You may feel the same about this subject.

Authenticity rules

The framework works like this.  In France, there is an obsession about where something comes from, which is usually a good thing, but not always.  Authenticity and sticking to the rules of production are often seen as being more important than, say, overall quality or customer needs.   The INAO is the controlling body for all Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée products – including wine, cheese, certain potatoes etc – and they have passed the guidelines for the extensive changes down to the individual Syndicats to come up with their own rulebook at a local level, which in turn has to be ratified by the INAO.  At Bauduc, because our vineyards fall within several different appellations (Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux and possibly Entre Deux Mers), we have to sign up to the directives from three separate Syndicats.

The old way: strict rules and tastings

Under the old rules, producers had to conform to a detailed set of rules concerning grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking.  They also had to provide samples to inspectors who would come and collect different lots of wine from various tanks or barrels, and these echantillons would go before a tasting panel. If a wine failed the tasting test, there were two more chances later.  Ultimately, few wines were rejected.  As soon as you had your certificate or label, you could sell your wine with Appellation Contrôlée on the label.

The main problem was that these tastings took place long before bottling, and there is absolutely no guarantee to the consumer for the quality of wines once they are bottled (which of course is the case for bottles being sold today).  Huge volumes of AC wine are bought and shipped around in bulk by negociants to blend under different brand names – at a current market price en vrac (in bulk) of a euro a litre – but more risky than this is that ‘approved’ wines could sit in a tank for ages.  Most consumers would assume that having Appellation Contrôlée on the label is a guarantee of quality.  It is not – it’s a guarantee of origin. I lunched alone recently at a Routier restaurant, La Puce near St-Emilion, and got talking to a man who runs a mobile bottling company in Bordeaux.  He told me that over 10% of what he bottled was ‘imbuvable’ – undrinkable.  I asked him how much he bottled each year. 11 million bottles, he said. 10% is a lot of bottles.

The other problem was the validity of the tastings. As the Directeur pointed out, tasters were likely to know whose wine was in the second round since wines were tasted by commune.  He gave a typical example – 2 wines would fail a first tasting out of 25 wines. He said that the tasters for the second round, who all came from the trade in Bordeaux – a team of three made up of a fellow vigneron, a courtier (broker) or a négociant (Bordeaux wine merchant) – would have a pretty good idea about the origins of the remaining wines.  If the wine came from a friend, then this might influence the vote, or vice versa.  (This could be why a single tank of our red 2004 failed the third and final test some years back, even though it tasted better than a line-up of wines which had passed, when we ran our own tasting afterwards.  Two Customs inspectors, who tasted it before the wine was sent to the distillery, joked ‘It’s because you’re English’.  To be fair, we had applied for Bordeaux Supérieur status rather than straight Bordeaux, which, I found out later, was a foolish error after it had failed the first test).

The new way: stricter rules, dossiers and spot-checks

A new controlling body, called Quali-Bordeaux, and no more tastings.  At least not unless we are investigated or ‘controlled’.  We must stick to the rules – which are unbelievably precise and detailed – and complete extensive documentation.  Each time we bottle, we must alert the authorities and they might come and check.  If there’s a problem with the product, there’ll be sanctions and penalties.

I’m going to read the enormous ‘Cahier des Charges’ now with a nice cup of hot chocolate. I’ll report back.

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