The French AOC System: Legislating Mediocrity
A few days ago, I wrote about, French Terroir vs. California Innovation: You Decide. After reviewing that post, I’d like to examine the French AOC system in a little more depth. While most of Europe and even some New World countries have modeled their wine governance systems on the AOC, it is fair to ask whether these laws actually help consumers, or if they merely give mediocre producers a safer framework to market their wines.
To begin, it is important to look at why the French AOC system was created in the first place. Some of France’s best wine producers were worried that lesser producers were diluting the value of famous wine growing regions. Before the AOC, a producer in Burgundy could buy some Grenache from the Rhone Valley and blend it with his Pinot Noir in an unripe year. He could then label the wine as if the grapes were entirely from his part of Burgundy.
Needless to say, premium quality producers were furious that this was happening. So they lobbied for laws that would protect the terroir. The AOC system emerged out of these efforts, and now regulates not only the varietal type and geographical source of grapes, but also yields, vineyard management decisions, winemaking practices, and other factors that affect quality.
> The AOC was originally intended to protect France’s best wine producers; and ironically, it has done more for the worst.
The problem is that AOC laws foster anti-competitive behavior. After all, if a “Bourgogne” label carries enough prestige to sell a wine on its own, there is little impetus for improvement. And this was the case for many years. That is, until a couple of decades ago when France and other European countries began to lose their stranglehold on the export market.
Producers from California, Australia, Chile, and other New World wine regions began to chip away at Europe’s dominance for a variety of reasons. One was that they were free to label their wines based on the grape varietal, which is illegal under the AOC. The consumer no longer had to be a geography expert to select a decent wine. It’s telling that New World wine regions gave many consumers what they were looking for by catering to their tastes; not abiding by the laws of an out-dated bureaucracy.