Text Size:-+

The Downside of AOC

sugar.jpgNews broke today of the prosecution of a convenience store owner in France, near Bordeaux, whose sales of sugar apparently went off the charts right about around harvest time this year.

The sugar was allegedly purchased by local "farmers" to "make jam."

Authorities, of course, suspected these farmers of being winemakers, and that the sugar was to be used in wines. While chaptalization, the process of adding sugar to grapes that might not have enough natural sugars in them to ferment properly to the desired alcohol level, is technically legal, there are strict limits on how much and when it can be done. There are also taxes that must be paid on purchases of sugar for this purpose.

So say the governmental bodies that regulate the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) system in France.

So the DGCCRF (Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes), swooped in and charged the store owner, and began investigations into all the local winemakers, who make sweeter white wines dependent upon ripe grapes and noble rot, both of which were in slightly shorter supply this year, apparently.

From my perspective, the point of this story is really just how the AOC laws that regulate winemakers in France can do more harm than good sometimes. There is no doubt that the regulations help preserve some of the incredible history and tradition of winemaking and regional styles in France. But when the laws prevent winemakers from making the best wine they think they can make, or even worse, prevent them from making wine that is commercially viable in a tough year, they are clearly not working the way they should.

I'm sure none of these winemakers wanted to add extra sugar to their wines, beyond the legal limits. They wanted a great sunny Autumn that would get their grapes ripe enough to make great wine. But perhaps they didn't get it. So why should they, and the poor people that sold them some sugar, become criminals just because they're trying to salvage a poor vintage?

There are those who say that such misfortune is a small price to pay for preserving the integrity, tradition, and heritage of the wine region. If we did away with the laws, the argument goes, everyone would be planting Chardonnay in Bordeaux, and mixing Syrah in with their Cabernet, and we will have lost the treasure that is Bordeaux. Better these poor farmers suffer a little in a bad vintage, than we lose the soul of Bordeaux.

That argument doesn't hold much water as far as I'm concerned. There's a lot of ground between making some liberalizations of the AOC system and doing away with it entirely, and I believe in erring on the side of letting the people who grow the grapes do what they need to make the best product they can.

Poor little Therese Solano in her village convenience store. That's all she was really trying to do: help out her neighbors, while feeding her family. Can we really fault people for that?

Read the full story.

Comments (8)

Tom wrote:
11.18.11 at 9:33 AM

I don't think the issue is that the AOC would prevent them from making the wine with the added sugar, just that the makers then couldn't call it by the AOC-designated name, which also means they probably couldn't sell it for as much money (and it seems here that's what the winemakers were trying to do). Winemakers often go outside the AOC regulations to make their wines and accept lower classifications, like Vin de Table, for doing it.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
11.18.11 at 9:41 AM

Good clarification. You are correct.

Carl wrote:
11.18.11 at 11:02 AM

Tom - you are absolutely correct. There are provisions in place for off years. This is a blatant attempt to mislead the public.
the storeowner is not at fault. the winemakers should be prosecuted for fraud and tax evasion.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
11.18.11 at 11:45 AM

Thanks for the comments. While clearly there has been some tax evasion in this process, it seems to me that the main point here was to use more sugar than was allowed (even in this "off year") and not get caught at that.

John wrote:
11.18.11 at 1:17 PM

Why AOC at all other than geography? Our domestic wine industry does not seem to pay a penalty for the fact that, if you wanted, you could make a Knight's Valley syrah, cabernet, chardonnay, or valdigue for that matter. A lot of Bordeaux might reach new fans if they felt free to blend a little Syrah in. The serious wine buyer would continue to do the research and purchase what he/she valued most.

11.18.11 at 1:34 PM

Great post, Alder!

Rogersworthe wrote:
11.18.11 at 11:22 PM

What I find odd about it is the idea that the grocery store owner is responsible for what people do with sugar, a completely harmless and legal product, outside of his store. That makes no sense to me. Is it really the responsibility of the grocer to police local winemakers? That's baffling to me.

Sean Spratt wrote:
11.21.11 at 11:37 AM

Well, funnily enough, the big deal with chaptalization in France is not necessarily about whether or not you adjust the sugar/alcohol levels. French winemakers are allowed to adjust sugar levels quite liberally under AOC rules, but what they get scratchy about is the use of cane sugar for chaptalization. In order to chaptalize, the sugars should be derived from grapes. So they can get around the cane sugar chaptalizing by using a very sweet grape concentrate. From a process and chemical standpoint there is virtually no difference between using a grape concentrate and cane sugar because cane sugar undergoes conversion to fructose within a manner of hours after being added to a grape must. However, grape concentrate is apparently quite expensive...much more so than cane sugar. Frankly, I wonder if using such a grape concentrate might actually have more impact on the flavour and appearance of wine than adding simple refined cane sugar.

Personally, the whole thing about chaptalization in France is a little bit of a hypocrisy. They do it, quite often as I understand from those I know who have worked in France, but it just can't be the cane sugars that are commonly used in all the non-EU winemaking countries.

Going after the poor store owner who sold the sugar is very unfortunate though.

Comment on this entry

(will not be published)
(optional -- Google will not follow)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Facebook Pinterest Instagram Delectable Flipboard

Most Recent Entries

Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets US 2014 Vintage - Early, Fast, Eventful Vinography Images: Big Shadow Come Explore The Essence of Wine with Me in Healdsburg: October 30th, 2014 Vinography Unboxed: Week of October 5, 2014 Another Idiotic California Law Screws Wineries Vinography Images: Vineyard Reflections The Fake Tongue Illusion and Wine Tasting 2014 Wine & Spirits Top 100 Tasting: October 21, San Francisco Cool Beauty: Tasting the Wines of the Western Sonoma Coast

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

Archives by Month


Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.