Monday, November 28, 2011

Ignoble Rottenness in Bordeaux

One of my favourite bloggers, Alder Yarrow (who writes Vinography), wrote a perplexing post about 10 days ago.

In his post, The Downside of AOC, Alder tells the tale of a convenience store owner in the Bordeaux region who was convicted of selling sugar to “professionals” (i.e., wine producers) without recording the buyer’s names.  In turn, these buyers avoided paying a tax owed on sugar used in a business.  (Adding sugar to wine, within specific limits, is legal in France and many other cool climate regions.  Sugar converts to alcohol during fermentation.  Adding sugar = higher alcohol.)

From this case of tax evasion, Alder argues that France’s Appellation Contrôlée regulations “prevent winemakers from making the best wine they think they can make, or even worse, prevent them from making wine that is commercially viable in a tough year.” 

Well, isn’t that the point of regulations that exist to protect the quality and integrity of a wine?      

Wine is one of the few products that we consume that is not required to disclose what’s in the package.  Reliance on the integrity and stringency of “quality control” regulations that wine regions around the world impose is one of the few guarantees that we consumers have.  Appellation Contrôlée is essentially a brand that assures consumers that what we think we are buying is really what we are getting.  And, like every other brand, these regulations exist to so that the brand is protected.  (Here in Ontario, we’re fortunate that the provincial government also tests a bottle of every wine brought into the province.)

If I buy a sweet white Bordeaux (like Sauternes or Barsac…expensive, those), I want to know that I can rely on French regulations that lay down how that wine can be made.  I wouldn’t like the idea that winemakers in Sauternes can simply dump as much sugar as they like into the vat to “salvage a poor vintage”.   It may be a better wine, sure, but it’s no longer Sauternes, which deservedly commands its premium price because it’s so difficult to make, and tastes so good.  Go ahead and sell it as vin de table but not as Sauternes.

So we either keep the Appellation Contrôlée system and the (limited) brand protection that it offers.  

Or, as Alder seems to suggest, we open up wine-making to no regulation.  (Worked well for the financial industry.)  But then let’s insist on full disclosure of the how and what of wine-making on the label.  Consumers deserve no less.     

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