I recently ran a short wine course for English-speakers living in France.
The main thing that people wanted to get from the course was trying to work out quality from the labels.
The whole French wine industry is based around the concept of well-defined wine regions.
Two main categories for French wine
The Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP) system defines the precise geographical location of the vineyards, the grape varieties which can be grown, the production yields and various other details such as pruning methods, planting density, minimum ripeness levels at harvest and winemaking procedures.
The Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) system defines a broader geographical region, a much wider range of permitted grape varieties and far more generous yield limits.
It is a system which allows more experimentation and adaptation to markets, trends and climate change.
With the increasing popularity of the IGP system of labelling, one has to question the relevance and need for the much more complex AOP system.
Origins of AOP labels
The AOP system was originally set up to define and protect regional French cheeses such as Camembert and Comté.
The wine industry adopted the same system primarily to combat fraud.
Starting in 1937, growers formed syndicats to protect their reputation and prevent other producers outside of their regions from using their labels. The goal was worthy and probably necessary at the time.
It has succeeded in protecting the livelihoods of thousands of French wine-producers who have benefitted from having a respected, communal brand.
It was originally limited to wines that were already famous but there are now over 360 individual AOPs and each year there are requests by growers to create more.
Burgundy demonstrates how AOPs work
At the heart of the AOP system is a hierarchy that is based on perceived quality of the terroir of the vineyard.
The hierarchy is most elaborated and obvious in Burgundy, where basic AOP Bourgogne sits at the bottom, followed by individual villages such as Beaune and Nuits-St-Georges.
The better vineyard sites are given Premier Cru status e.g. Volnay 1er Cru.
At the top of the Burgundy hierarchy are the Grand Crus. An elite list of world-famous vineyard plots such as Montrachet and Romanée-Conti.
Other regions want their own AOP hierarchies
Wine-producers throughout France have sought to create similar hierarchies within their own regions.
The Côtes du Rhône is a good example.
A few decades ago there was just one prestigious cru AOP, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the rest divided into basic Côtes du Rhône and Villages.
Now there are nine cru AOPs, such as Gigondas, and an ever-increasing number of named villages such as Sablet and Plan de Dieu who have elevated themselves above the Côtes-du-Rhône-Village AOP and probably want to contend for Cru status in the future.
Customer does not benefit from more AOPs
However, one has to question the value of creating dozens of AOPs in wine regions which had little historical prestige and only local popularity.
It may be a sense of pride for the vignerons of Fronton, Pecharmant and Reuilly to gain AOP status for their wines but they were hardly under threat of fraud nor are consumers better served.
It just creates more confusion when trying to guess what kind of wine is in a bottle bearing those lesser-known names.
The creation and elevation of numerous village AOPs is also of little value to consumers.
Power and self-congratulation
I doubt there are any experts who can consistently tell a Rasteau from a Cairanne, two crus of the southern Rhone.
There is little flavour difference between villages, all of which are made from the same grape varieties, in a similar climate and using identical practices. It just feels like an exercise in self-congratulation.
In many cases the AOP hierarchies outside the Rhône, Bordeaux and Burgundy don’t really reflect the quality of the terroir.
They have often been built around the vineyard holdings of the most powerful land-owners who are most active within their local syndicats, as opposed to the vineyards which consistently produce wines with distinctive qualities.
Climate plays a part
In the north of France it makes sense that the warmest, sunniest vineyard sites consistently produce higher quality wines, especially in weaker vintages.
However, that argument doesn’t really apply in the south where the hottest sites often just produce wines with higher alcohol levels and overripe flavours.
An AOP can charge more
Within the IGP system, the wine has to speak for itself.
Therefore prices tend to be far more associated with quality than AOP wines.
A famous AOP name on the label allows lower quality producers to sell wines at higher prices than they deserve.
New World reputation relies on quality not labels
Let’s remember that there are no AOP systems in the New World. There is only an equivalent of the IGP system.
It doesn’t seem to have hindered the wine producers of Marlborough Sauvignon blanc, Barossa Shiraz or Napa Valley Cabernet.
Most consumers of Argentinean Malbec don’t know or care where the vineyards are actually located or what the soil-type is.
The price of wines from those regions depends mainly, as it should, on the reputation of the producer, not on a dubious claim to having better terroir.
A losing game for all
Perhaps wine producers in France’s lesser-known regions have been lured into playing by the same rules in a game they can never win.
Creating an AOP cru for a particular village in the Côtes du Roussillon is never going to elevate the wines to the desirability of St-Emilion or Beaune.
All it does is create tension between neighbouring vignerons while creating more names for the confused consumer to learn and remember.