Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Grand new order revisit #1

It was 8 months ago I posted here about the proposed new hierarchy for Languedoc wines. After a splendid but tiring day at the Montpeyroux's "Toutes Caves Ouvertes" I relaxed with a mug of tea to catch up on Sunday's regional daily paper the Midi Libre. The Languedoc wine hierarchy was front page news - read the on-line version, in French, here. There isn't anything particularly new in the article. Five of the appellations involved have voted and signed up, but with no indication as to whether this progress matches any plan or timetable.

I subsequently found a press dossier issued by CIVL and dated 2011 here which looks to be a key source for the Midi Libre article. Quite why this didn't appear back in August to keep up the momentum and clarify rumours perhaps hints at the politics involved. Interestingly, the introduction states the criteria for Grand Vin and Crus is "qualitatifs et économiques". The only elaboration on the quality aspect is a restriction on yield, how long the wine stays in the cellars and that wines are bottled locally - but no mention of harvesting techniques. Obviously these are in addition to the underlying AOC rules.

The press release includes this useful bit of "power point".

For me, two key points come out of the press dossier.

Firstly, it reveals hard evidence that the classification is very tenuously based on the quality of the wines and their terroir i.e. as would be revealed by a tasting or looking at current market prices. Back in August I was shocked that Faugères had only been classified as a Grand Vin and not a Grand Cru. The Terrasses du Larzac is a Grand Cru but the dossier reveals that Montpeyroux and Saint-Saturnin, villages geographically, climatically and geologically at the heart of the Terrasses du Larzac, are merely Grand Vins. If anyone from CIVL was at the Montpeyroux Toutes Caves Ouvertes and actually tasted the wines they will realise something is very wrong and there are big problems. Another upshot of the Montpeyroux and Saint-Saturnin islands is to add unnecessary complexity and confusion.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis on the price of wine at the heart of this. Appellations that qualify geographically to be Grand Crus, a status depicted as being at the top of the pyramid, will only be able to label their wines as such if they retail at €10 or more. For the middle tier of Grand Vins the price is between €3,5 and €10. The principle here is that if producers and retailers cannot sell their wines at these price points then it will have to be labelled AOC. So, Grand Cru becomes a badge that says this wine comes from a designated AOC and can be yours for at least 10€. An upside of this is that the middlemen will need to satisfy themselves that the Grand Cru wines they buy will shift at over 10€ and hence focus them on rigorous selection. No doubt the hope over time is for Languedoc Grand Cru and Vins to gain a quality reputation with consumers. As a consumer, I would also expect hand harvested grapes for a 10€ plus bottle, a quality aspect that's not mentioned.

Here's a telling quote in the Midi-Libre article from the Director of the the AOC Languedoc Jean-Philippe Granier.
"Un grand cru à 10 €, ce n’est pas du luxe, c’est la réalité. Aujourd’hui on trouve des produits superbes à des petits prix. A l’heure actuelle seul un connaisseur peut s’y retrouver. Pas un Chinois. Un grand cru ou un grand vin, c’est plus facile à comprendre.".
My translation is that "Grand Cru quality does cost 10€ but at present only connoisseurs can unearth these great bargains. A Chinese consumer would have no chance until he/she can read "Grand Cru" on the label."
In reality little will change for connoisseurs as many of the best wines will be made outside the "Grand" territories or use non-qualifying grape varieties.

Obviously for me the Languedoc is about Independent Vignerons because they make the most exciting wines crafted from vine to bottle by characterful dedicated individuals. The problem being tackled here is the prosperity of the wine business as a whole, something as important to the region as Finance is to London. Just as politicians never please everyone, CIVL must be in the same position - they too have procedures involving voting.

Back to Montpeyroux. Today they can use the village name on labels and must see that as a bigger brand today than Terrasses du Larzac or Grand Cru. As far as only achieving Grand Vin status I propose a couple of theories; a ploy by CIVL to get them to embrace the Terrasses du Larzac combined with no big negociants producing in Montpeyroux so it's all below the radar in the overall scheme of things. Somewhere "seul un connaisseur peut s’y retrouver".

For more on this I'd recommend Ryan's O'Vinyards blog - just type CIVL in the search box. In the meantime I suspect it may be less than 8 months before returning to this topic.

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