Appellation tastings – an insider's riposte


Recently retired specialist Loire broker Charles Sydney (pictured here with his wife and colleague Philippa) reports on his experiences of the 'label' tastings that decide who is allowed appellation status and who not. This could be read as a riposte to Wilderness wines increase

Frankly the growers who grumble tend to be either media stars or more 'natural' ones who don't accept that their wines can be faulty, or both ... even superstars make mistakes sometimes! 

I know that's a big generalisation, but at the 'label' tastings, it is made clear to the jury that simply being atypical isn't a criteria for refusing the appellation. 

Before being allowed to taste, potential jury members (professionals, ie wine growers, courtiers, négociants and restaurateurs) are trained by professionals with regular update training sessions – see example below. 

This is run by wine technologists, whose aim is to teach tasters how to identify genuine faults such as oxidation, reduction, volatility, brett, etc – using specially distilled essences to help identify specific problems. A little like the Nez du Vin kits we played with decades ago, but showing faults rather than fruit and flowers.

Special emphasis is placed on individuals having different perception levels for different chemicals, and it is no longer acceptable for tasting notes to talk of tastes/aromas in general terms.

Tastings are blind, with a minimum of five tasters, all professional, and no talking. We then compare notes, with scores defining whether a wine should be questioned or rejected. If a wine is rejected, the grower can resubmit as it's always possible a sample was not representative. If a sample is rejected a second time, the grower is offered help from an oenologist. The sample can then be tasted a third time.

A lot of effort is put into helping producers to solve faults and where necessary to improve their winemaking skills.

Tastings are rigorous and if anything err a teeny bit on the generous side as it's clear the sample could be from one of the tasters.

That said, I've now stopped participating as a jury member as I am a long way from being as professional a taster as the guys I've been tasting with – younger, college-trained producers for whom I have enormous respect and of whom a growing number are organic (so no bias against weird wines there!).

The Loire wines I've tasted that have been rejected have all been seriously faulty, even sometimes from famous names. For example, I don't think flor to be a characteristic of Loire Chenin Blanc. I would strongly disagree with the notion that 'really good but innovative wines' are being refused.

Use of oak, low sulphur, amphorae, etc are not considered faults and growers are at liberty to vinify as they consider best, and the wines will be accepted unless they are classed as faulty – see the reasons for refusing the appellation (linked below).

The growers at juries I've attended have been pretty ferocious at refusing wines classified as faulty as they do not want their appellation's image to be tainted by faulty wines.

Of course, the above works for Chinon and the whole of the Touraine as the syndicat's tastings are coordinated by the CIVT [local generic growers' association]. I'd assume similar methods are used elsewhere.

As for the 'swelling ocean of Vins de France', that is precisely to give growers more latitude than was allowed with Vins de Table both re labelling (with the variety and vintage) and re styles – hence us producing the La Grille Pinot Noir as a Vin de France since AOC rules protect the 'traditional character' of the AOC by imposing a majority of Gamay. Their choice for authenticity and tradition, our choice for commercial reasons...

There you are – you did ask for strong opinions! So even if I often grumble about restrictions imposed by AOC rules, I cannot fault the way they run the tastings.