Just as Bordeaux was beginning to recover from the effects of last year's fraud trial, another "reputable" Bordeaux firm, De Luze, is accused of stabilizing wine for export to the United States with sodium nitrate, an illegal and toxic substance.
This time the wines involved are not Bordeaux but Chablis and other white Burgundies handled by De Luze. If Bordeaux's former image of probity was tarnished by the first scandal, it will now be thoroughly sullied. And consumers do not always make the nice distinction between estate-bottled wines and shipper bottlings. Thousands of innocent winegrowers will suffer along with the shippers. Furthermore, the integrity of French wines in general is brought into question by the repeated discovery of such practices.
Of 30,000 growers in the Bordeaux area, only 3,500 bottle their own wines. The more fortunate producers of château-bottled wines began to take their distance from the shippers after the last scandal.
New groupings, such as the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, including top-ranked growths of Graves, Médoc, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and Sauternes-Barsac, are trying to develop their own distribution system and direct sales to the consumer. But this is little help to the remaining 88 percent of the growers, completely dependent on the shippers to whom they sell their wine in bulk.
Both wine scandals came at awkward moments. Following the general economic downswing, a drastic slump in prices hit Bordeaux only a few months before the first scandal broke. The second scandal comes at an even worse time, just as exports, sales and prices began to rise again with a boost from an exceptionally fine, if small, vintage.
Bordeaux was hoping to attract a lot of attention this week with the regional development of Acquitania exhibition at the Maison de la Radio in Paris. On Monday, former Prime Minister and Mayor of Bordeaux Jacques Chaban-Delmas inaugurated the show together with his former political rival President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, amid rumors of the new scandal.
Many see political overtones in the timing of this scandal, on the order of what's bad for Bordeaux is bad for Mr. Chaban-Delmas. The mayor's political career is said to have been heavily backed by the Cruse family, several members of which were convicted of fraud last year.
This is mere speculation, but one thing is sure – this scandal is doing nothing for the reputation of the French wine trade and French wines. What good is it to have strict laws if these laws are regularly and rather easily circumvented by shipping firms? People have been taught to believe that the words appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) on wine labels are a guarantee of authenticity and integrity.
The first scandal damaged the notion of authenticity and now the chemical integrity of French wines is under a cloud. It would seem that a whole new approach to quality wine production is needed, and only two regions in France have put themselves largely above suspicion by the rules governing the production of wines there.
All AOC wines in Alsace must be bottled within the two departments that make up the province. Even more exacting are the laws covering the making of Champagne. Not only must all Champagne be bottled within the province of that name, but Champagne firms may handle only Champagne and other wines from the province (i.e., nonsparkling Coteaux Champenois, red and white). They are not allowed to deal in or even stock any wines from outside the production area.
If the 200 Bordeaux shippers were to deal in nothing except wines from the department of the Gironde, within which all 3 million hectoliters of Bordeaux AOC wine are grown, these scandals might never have taken place. And the same ought to be true for Burgundy, Beaujolais, the Rhône Valley, Provence, the Loire Valley, the Jura, the Midi, and any other major wine region.
In any case, something will have to be done soon to restore the integrity of French wines in the mind of the consumer, whose cynicism has just made a quantum leap forward. And it is not going to be improved as financial predicaments and/or further scandals of the Bordeaux trade come to light.
Other firms are said to be implicated in fraudulent practices and at least one is widely rumored to be in financial straits, the firm of Ginestet. Nor, apparently, can it find anyone to bail it out, despite an enticing ownership of prestigious first-growth Château Margaux.
The problem lies in the fact that wine is both a highly salable commodity and something of an art form. As such its evaluation is always subjective to a large degree and this leaves considerable room for fraud, as is often the case with works of art.
Once a wine has left the grower's property in anything but bottles, its later authentication becomes impossible. Thus the only advice to consumers who want to be certain of the origin of a wine is to buy only estate-bottled wine (mise en bouteilles au château, à la propriété or au domaine). And even this does not guarantee that the wine will be good, merely that it comes from where it says it does.
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November 11, 1975
An article by Jon Winroth on Page 7 of your paper dated Nov. 7 relates the situation in Bordeaux. The name of our firm is mentioned in a tendentious and libelous way in connection with allegedly fraudulent practices.
I protest energetically against such allegations and I categorically deny all the assertions published in your newspaper.
Chairman of Ginestet S.A.