France poised to overhaul AOC system

Related tags Terroir

VinExpo may have begun under a gallic cloud in Bordeaux, but French
agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau has entered the lion's den
to assure wine makers that reform is coming, reports Chris

"The time for reflection is over. We must act to improve the standing of French wine on markets at home and abroad,"​ said Bussereau to industry workers at the VinExpo conference.

Part of this action, he said, will be to reform the French wine industry's appellation d'origine contôlée (AOC) system - something that could constitute the biggest restructuring since 1935, when the AOC itself was born.

It is still unclear what kind of shape this reform will take, but France's appellation d'origine authority, the INAO, has been discussing a rewrite of the AOC laws, under the presidency of René Renou.

Minutes from the June INAO meeting say that AOC representatives "agreed on the key points to be implemented in every AOC region"​ if the laws are to be changed.

One element likely to feature prominently in the reform is a new method of releasing some producers from the stringent conditions of the AOC in order to help them make more consumer-friendly wines.

Bussereau told the VinExpo audience that the French industry should be split into two groups:

- One containing traditional wines, strongly associated with the idea of origin and 'terroir' (the living environment in which they have been grown).

- Another consisting of more fashion-conscious wines for "every consumer and every occasion"​. These wines would be able to adapt quickly to changing market and consumer demands, and production regulations would be less strict.

However, Bussereau warned it would be foolish for France to turn its back on the AOC system. "The AOC particularly is at a cross-roads, but we must not forget that France can only protect its market position with quality assurance."

Crucially, the government has released few details of how its two-pronged restructuring is to be achieved.

Some AOC wine makers are unlikely to accept reform unless it is accompanied by a reduction in the endless bureaucracy and rules placed upon them by the current system.

Pierre Clavel, who exports 90 per cent of his AOC wine, said the bureaucracy was crippling good businesses. "I know wine makers in Spain and they are laughing at us, just laughing. We are expected to spend our time doing paperwork, while they can put all their energy into producing good wines,"​ he said.

Bussereau said the government had put forward a case for reform, but it would be "the wine makers themselves who will shape the future of the industry"​. French businesses have been asked to draw up business plans to present to the INAO.

Whatever the structure of the industry, the ability of France to reach more foreign consumers will be key.

Almost a third of world wine is now drunk outside the producer country. French per capita consumption has halved in the last 20 years, though remains more than the UK and US put together.

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