Don’t touch that regulation

A few days ago, wine writer Panos Kakaviatos wrote from Strasbourg, France a brief story for Meinninger’s Wine Business International that covered a problem in Alsace concerning two hundred or so Alsatian wine producers who attacked the region’s Alsace Viticultural Association (AVA) because they say the association wants to change the rules.

Remember that I wrote twice in the past few months concerning how I feel about the so-called appellation system in the United States that essentially tells consumers where grapes are grown and wine is made, and nothing much else?

This Alsatian story is about appellation rules, and it puts me in a quandary. I don’t know whether to be for or against the Alsatian authorities.

My dislike for the appellation system here at home is rooted in the fact that the system does not even try to understand and recognize whether or not certain grape varieties should be grown in certain places. Plus, the system is mute concerning how wine can be treated in order to preserve its expression of the appellation or American Viticultural Area (AVA)—the “terroir.”

Our system boils down to just another marketing scheme but with government providing cover. Not that the Europeans don’t use their system in their marketing, but there is something behind the rules.

The other AVA, the one in Alsace, has put on the table a discussion of reforms that would change the way Alsatian grand cru wines are labeled. Right now, the majority of producers market their products as varietal wines. The changes may include a requirement to drop varietal labeling.

The grand cru system was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certain geological and climate conditions were considered and about 4% of Alsace’s vineyards were classified “Grand Cru” status. The grand cru system allows only four grape varieties: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muscat.

Note: other grape varieties are used to make wine in Alsace, but they are not allowed in the grand cru wines.

Since the Alsatian system came so late in history, many Alsatians are unconvinced that it tells the world much about the appellation. A number of producers with vineyards located within grand cru boundaries choose not to apply the grand cru status to their label at all—not a bad reason for them to be concerned about a change that drops varietal labeling.

This is where my problem comes in: I like the way Alsatian wines are labeled. But if I am so set in the European style appellation system, why would I not like the Alsatians to go to a strictly “vineyard location name” system?

Because I’m used to the varietal labeling, and I do not know all of the 51 grand cru vineyards that would be involved in the reform. Plus, Alsatian grand cru wines are not known for their multi-blending the way in which most European appellation wines are handled. It’s just that in Alsace, the wines are known by their grape varieties.

As for the possibility that the grand cru system may not really tell the consuming world much, the president of an AVA grand cru section is also a grand cru producer, Jean Michel Deiss. He does not use varietal labeling for his wines and of course, he is pushing for the change. Plus ça change, etc., Monsiour Deiss!

This issue leaves me a little queasy. Here I am hoisted on my own petard because I am either too lazy to study the 51 grand cru locations or too uninterested in change. At the least, I have a better feel for how hard it will be to do anything about the U.S. appellation system, despite that our varietal labeling is only a 75% solution, literally.

Still, it would be nice to have a U.S. system that makes, say, a vineyard-designated label, or the word “reserve” on the label an official guarantee of something instead of just marketing. But I’m open-minded now.

It’s possible that we should do nothing and let marketing rule the world.

Panos’ article

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2009. All rights reserved.

2 Responses to “Don’t touch that regulation”

  1. Dear Thomas, thanks for addressing the article. I can understand, from a purist terroir point of view, what the reform is aiming at: stressing terroir, as in other French regions, and differentiating Alsace varieties from potential competitors in future. But from a practical point of view I think that this would not work at all. For too many years now, bon gré, mal gré, Alsace wines have been sold based on the variety. It would make the wines very difficult to sell not only because consumers do not know the 51 grands crus, but also because they would like to know what is in the bottle.

  2. Thomas says:

    Panos,

    Yes, it would be difficult. It’s always difficult to change–anything.

    The most difficult thing about appellation rules, or lack of them, is that (aside from the marketing angle) they are largely based on that “terroir” concept. While I am a believer in the influence that the earth has on earthly products, I also know it would help considerably if there were more objective scientific proof of the concept.

    Probably wouldn’t change much, but could help to effect some changes in the way the wine world operates.