Terroir, appellation d’origine contrôlée and geographic indications

It seems relatively uncontroversial that terroir driven wines will hold some part of Australia’s wine future.  And terroir itself holds many aspects, including perhaps most obviously geography, geology and climate.  After reviewing so many Burgundy wines recently, it got me thinking that the many trees felled on the topic of French terroir frequently start from tasting wines that are designated as appellation d’origine contrôlée (“AOC“) wines.  Which then got me thinking whether or not an AOC system of the French kind might have some sort of merit in an Australian context. 

In Australia, we do of course have a limited appellation system based on “geographical indications” (“GI“). The Australian Government Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation website sets out the GI rules in good detail.  In short, Australian GIs are an official description of a “wine zone”, “region” or “sub-region” (basically “large”, “medium” and “small”, respectively) whose only requirement is that a wine which carries a GI must include at least 85% fruit from that region.  A list of Australia’s current wine zones, regions and sub-regions is contained in this link.  Many producers of course go much further than this and identify wine as coming from particular parcels of land.  However, technically, for wine to be labelled as say Yarra Valley, Macedon Ranges or Mornington Peninsula wine, it is sufficient that 85% of the fruit in the wine is sourced from within that relevant GI.

Conversely, under the French AOC system, the detail of what is prescribed for wine to be eligible as an AOC wine is rather breathtaking.  The approving body (the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité (“INAO“): see http://www.inao.gouv.fr/) sets rules for, among other things, the permitted geographic region, the types of grapes permitted, the density of planting and maximum production per hectare.  For example, taking a wine seeking to be given the designation of “AOC Chambolle-Musigny” in Burgundy, the AOC rules for that commune specify, among other things, that (i) the wine must be made exclusively from vines in the plot area approved by the INAO, (ii) the wine must be made from pinot noir, with chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot gris accepted as accessory varieties, (iii) accessory varieties are limited to 15% of each plot, (iv) the vines must have a minimum density of 9,000 vines per hectare, (v) irrigation is prohibited, (vi) the wines must have a minimum natural alcoholic strength of 10.5%, (viii) the wines must be vinified in accordance with local practices and (ix) the use of oak chips is prohibited (for the rules, see here).  There are many, many further requirements.

The AOC rules therefore are considerably more restrictive than the Australian GI regime, and indeed, almost completely different.  The AOC system has also faced considerable criticism in France and from abroad.  Criticisms include (i) the apparent lack of a necessary causal connection between AOC wines and quality wines, (ii) the rules not being flexible to changing circumstances such as climatic conditions or new technologies or permitting innovation in grape varieties, (iii) the quality effect of particular winemakers or owners being largely ignored, (iv) the boundaries of AOC appellations not necessarily accurately reflecting the underlying terroir, (v) the AOC labels can be confusing – particularly in Burgundy, and (vi) some argue that the AOC system has inhibited France’s ability to compete with more flexibly labelled exports from the “new world”.  For the last reason, there are current reforms afoot in the EU: see here for an introduction.  Despite these apparent limitations, the AOC system is seen as a conduit for the maintenance of quality wine making traditions and expression of terroir, and for protection against “wine fraud”.

In my humble opinion, it is probably possible to make an argument for both sides.  The flexibility of Australia’s current system would seem better than being constrained by the rigidity of an AOC style system.  Conversely, there’s a certain rigour and predictability that comes with an AOC system, particularly were it crafted in a manner minded to remediate the perceived limitations of the French AOC system, that could be of benefit in assisting to help create and distinguish Australia’s particular terroirs.  If I had to make a decision now, I would probably arrive on the side of maintaining Australia’s existing system, since Australian producers can no doubt achieve the same results without the imposition of a set of bureaucratic rules and the risk that poses.  But it is perhaps worth more than a passing thought.

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