10 February A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Is typicality a necessary virtue? This is a question increasingly widely discussed in the world of wine – not least because that world is in such a state of flux.
There has never been as much experimentation as today – particularly in terms of winemaking techniques. Growers in Bordeaux who plant the German grape Riesling know from the start that any wine produced will be way outside the rules of any Bordeaux appellation so it will almost certainly have to be sold as a geographically vague Vin de France.
But suppose they take a Sauvignon Blanc, a grape variety fully embraced by the lengthy Bordeaux appellation rules. And suppose furthermore that, encouraged by the current fashion for 'orange wines', white wines fermented like red wines in contact with the grape skins, they make a deep amber wine that is as chewy as a young red Médoc. Should that wine be allowed the appellation Bordeaux even though it is nothing like the great majority of fresh white Bordeaux on the market?
This is the conundrum facing wine authorities around Europe, where tasting samples of wines is mandatory by EU law before they can be sold with a specific geographical designation. This tasting hurdle was initially introduced to ensure that wines carrying, for example, an AOC in France, DOC in Italy and DO in Spain reached a certain minimum level of quality. There is only so much that a technical analysis (also required) can guarantee.
Countries and regions have the flexibility to decide how they test wines and producers but the most common procedure is to have a panel of tasters assess whether individual wines deserve the appellation sought. In practice this tends to mean that the wines are judged on how typical they are of that appellation and has led, particularly in the Loire, to a certain amount of strife and derision when some of the most dedicated artisans find their wines rejected on the grounds that they lack typicité. Rejected wines are not allowed to be sold under an appellation name and are hence cast out into the wilderness of Vins de France,
The case of Olivier Cousin of Cousin-Leduc is particularly notorious. His vineyards in the Anjou region are certified biodynamic and are worked painstakingly with his horse in a fashionable return to the methods of previous, pre-agrochemical generations. Yet his wines have been refused the Anjou appellation as being atypical and he has rather relished taunting the authorities (who seem particularly inflexible, refusing for example, to allow two of the finest producers of Vouvray, Jacky Blot and François Chidaine, to call their wines Vouvray because they are vinified across the river in Montlouis).
The new wave of so-called 'natural wines', those with minimal additions such as the sulphites that have been used for centuries to keep fruit fresh, are frequently rejected by conventional appellation tasting panels. I can well understand this if the wines have a technical fault (as a certain proportion of natural wines do), but it seems heavy-handed, short-sighted and misguided if they are technically fine but simply different from the norm.
Douglas Wregg works for Les Caves de Pyrène, the company with the longest history of importing natural wines into the UK (and over the years has probably written more words about wine than any professional wine writer). For him, 'the notion of appellation has been gradually devalued over the years. The people who make the rules seem to go for a lowest-common-denominator, homogeneous style of wine that may be easily recognised by consumers; what appellation isn't doing (in certain regions) is working for individual growers, defending heritage.'
He adds, 'we have had a number of growers who have fallen foul of the system for one reason or another. It is not that they don't want their wines to be part of appellation, but they want the appellation to reflect (what they consider to be) good practice – organic/biodynamic farming, traditional work in the vineyards and low-intervention winemaking. The variability of the wines (due to the nature of the vintage, the wild ferments) means that they are unique rather than typical of stylised wines that can be produced year after year.'
In some regions the official tasters have tended to be older, more established – for which read more conservative – local wine luminaries. There are examples throughout Europe of disgruntled innovators being refused permission to sell their wines labelled with the local appellation. Typically the refusedniks resort to badmouthing the tasting panel and selling their wines as Vin de France, Vino d'Italia or Vino de España, without any more specific geographical designation. As a result, these denominations, the modern equivalent of lowly Vin de Table, have now garnered a certain cachet. Indeed some restaurant and wine-bar wine lists are dominated by them.
Italian tasting panels are supposed to be made up of individuals completely independent of the local wine council but in practice this can be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. It is rumoured that when wine producers from the white wine village of San Gimignano were recruited to judge Chianti Classicos, a quite extraordinary proportion of even quite conventional examples of this classic red were rejected – presumably because the white wine producers had so little experience of the Chianti Classico style.
Tastings are always meant to be blind, but they are not always stringently policed and, according to our Italian specialist Walter Speller, 'There is huge potential for bias, because wines that do not conform to what is considered typical are rejected. And huge mistakes have been and can be made.'
A young producer of particularly fine wines in Austria's Weinviertel, goes even further. 'The wine quality tasting system in Austria is in crisis. Not only because of the system, but because of the tasters. Mostly they are not really into wine. Of course [they know] their own, regional sphere – but not over and above that.' Austrian wine writer Luzia Schrampf is also concerned about the calibre of official tasting panels and is strongly in favour of extensive and regular retraining programmes for them.
In Spain, wines have to be approved by a panel of tasters – winemakers and local wine luminaries – recruited by the local Consejo Regulador, the local wine authority. The common complaint from quality-conscious wine producers in Spain is not that these panels are too fastidious and reject too many wines, but that they are too lax, resulting in a downgrading of quality in DOs such as Rioja (see Spain in a pickle).
I would argue that quality is much more important than conformity and from the point of view of the consumer I would be sad to see exciting wines sold without any geographical identity simply because they are not mainstream. To rob a wine of any geographical clues is to rob it of much of its identity.
SOME WILDERNESS WINES
These are all delicious, superior French wines that, for various reasons, are sold as Vins de France, so without any clues as to their geographical origin on the label. There are tasting notes on all these wines in our fully searchable database of tasting notes.
Ch Maris, Brama
Sophisticated Grenache Gris dry white from the Languedoc hills
Ch Retout, Le Retout Blanc
Blend of non-bordelais grapes from the Médoc
Dom Rives-Blanques, Lagremas d'Aur
Sweet, late-picked Chenin Blanc from Limoux
Dom de la Sénéchalière, La Bohème
Dom de la Taille aux Loups, Clos de la Bretonnière
Delicious Chenin Blanc grown in Vouvray and vinified in Montlouis
Ch d'Agel, Venustas
Powerful Syrah grown in the Minervois region
Grenache Noir from Roussillon
Baron Maxime, L'Eclectique
Blend of reds from Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Aix-en-Provence
Colline de l'Hirondelle
Reds from old vines grown near Carcassonne (their discreetly logo-ed artisanal car is pictured above)
Mark Haisma, Syrah/Grenache
From a vineyard on schist south of Valence outside any appellation
Les Terrasses de Gabrielle, Comédie
The Bordeaux grape Cabernet Franc in the Languedoc
Beaujolais-like Cinsault in the Languedoc hills