WINE: French Vineyards Under Fire

International Herald Tribune

Thursday, July 4, 1974

In the past few years, French wine producers have so blatantly ignored government regulations designed to ensure minimum quality control that they have brought down upon themselves the wrath of their own board of governors – the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine.

The INAO – grouping producers, distributors, dealers and representatives from the Ministries of Agriculture, Finance and Economy – is not an official government body. Its function is advisory and, in the past, it has tended toward complacency, overlooking more than overseeing.

But now that wholesale prices are tumbling and red wines from Bordeaux have come under a cloud – about 20 indictments are predicted in connection with last year's scandal (IHT, Aug. 31) – the INAO has proposed a stiff reform program to the government. Its recommendations will become law if the National Assembly passes a bill or if the minister of agriculture incorporates them into a decree. If enacted the reform program won't affect the 1974 crop. The vines were pruned in February, but reforms should begin making themselves felt at pruning time next year.

The reform program makes much of yields, hectoliters, hectares, reclassification. To the buying/drinking public the proposed reforms will probably mean more truthful labels, fewer "incredible" bargains and, perhaps, better wine. Consumer prices are unlikely to fall.

The talk about yield per hectare has to do with the fact that a vine can pump up only so much mineral matter from the ground, synthesize only so much sugar. The rest of the grape is water. How a vine is pruned determines how many bunches it will produce. The more bunches on a given vine, the higher the percentage of water in the grapes – with everything else that goes into making fine wine proportionately diluted. When a vineyard overproduces, the grapes are inferior, contain less natural sugar. To turn them into "acceptable" wine, the producer is obliged to add sugar.

Until demand – on the wholesale level – began tapering off this spring, the temptations and opportunities to cheat were often too strong to resist. Regional INAO committees implement the French wine laws – and they are no more immune to temptation than the growers.

To take the most flagrant example, in the Beaujolais area more than twice the legal limit (50 hectoliters to the hectare) of wine was made in 1973 (1.8 million hectoliters instead of the usual 700,000 to 800,000). About two thirds of this was ultimately given the right to bear the name of Beaujolais. But growers knew they could sell the rest of it – for nearly the same price as they had got for their "real" Beaujolais. True, this excess wine could only be marketed as vin ordinaire. But producers offered it to exporters at prices much higher than those for truly "ordinary" wine and just slightly under those for 1973 Beaujolais – and the two wines were equivalent. Once the exporter got it out of the country, he rechristened his vin ordinaire "Beaujolais" – and no one was the wiser; both producer and exporter were cleaning up.

Last fall buyers were begging growers to sell them 215-liter barrels of Beaujolais for 1,150 francs. Today growers are offering the same wine at 800 francs a barrel.

Why has demand slackened? Primarily because of inflation – Beaujolais used to be a relatively cheap wine for the consumer. But at $1.50 or more a bottle – in France – it is no longer an everyday wine.

The INAO – as a measure of self-protection – wants an end to overproduction and to the sort of wheeling and dealing that has been going on in the Beaujolais area and elsewhere – which, while within the letter of the law, does little for the image of French wine.

Then comes the problem of "declassifying" production in excess of legal limits. To take an example from the Burgundy region, a grower with a plot in the Chambertin vineyard – which produces a very expensive grand cru – is entitled to make only 30 hectoliters of wine a hectare. But the permissible yield for Gevrey-Chambertin, the lesser communal appellation to which such a grower is also entitled, is 35 hectoliters to the hectare, while that for "Burgundy," a name to which the same grower also has the right, is 45 hectoliters to the hectare.

Thus if such a grower produces 70 hectoliters to the hectare, the first 30 can be called Chambertin, the next five Gevrey-Chambertin, and other 10 Burgundy, and the final 25, vin ordinaire. But what vin ordinaire!

The INAO proposals would stop this kind of systematic declassification. Upper limits would be set by the national – as opposed to regional – INAO board. Anything over the limit would have to be sold for distillation into industrial alcohol – it could no longer be sold even as vin ordinaire.

There would be no more declassification by stages. Either a grower would produce 30 hectoliters a hectare of Chambertin and turn the rest over for distillation, or he would sell it as Gevrey-Chambertin or Burgundy, depending on how much he produced or declared. In any case, the excess would go to the distillery.

Lastly, the INAO would like to impose tastings of the final product – a plan that will probably take about five years to put into operation. This project would apply to every wine with an appellation d'origine contrτlιe – and if the wine did not meet the standards, the production would lose the appellation. In short, all or nothing.

Will the INAO be able to impose reform? Probably. The Bordeaux wine scandal has undermined the prestige of the industry. The quality of French wines has suffered from excessive yields and consumers are beginning to object – and not just to prices. Enlightened self-interest would seem to dictate acceptance of admittedly severe regulations that are aimed at stopping severe abuses.