Believe it or not, even the French have trouble picking out wine.
Like non-French consumers, our Gallic friends are known to
scan the wine aisle, glassy-eyed, wondering what is what, what
goes well with what, and what is any good at all. Incroyable,
The confusion in choosing a French wine based on the label isn't
new. To combat the problem, the French had the bright idea to
create a Good Housekeeping Seal; in 1935 the Appellation
d'Origine Controlee (AOC) system was born. Since then, it has
become a sort of overarching megabrand. By giving strict
guidelines to the wine industry, for example, the AOC
guarantees that when you buy a Bordeaux, the grapes came
from the Bordeaux region, they were treated in a certain way,
there was a given amount of alcohol in the finished product, and
specific grape varieties were used.
The AOC became a sort of promise of a minimum amount of
quality. After that, making it really good was up to the wine
Now the system is creaking under its own weight. The French
penchant for classification and paperwork (Dewey must have had
ancestors here) has created something of a self-diluted mess.
Everything from wine and cheese, natural contenders for this
sort of thing, to the lowly apple now sport AOCs. Plus, a shrewd
winemaker can follow the rules and still make an AOC wine that
no one would buy twice. The system ain't broke, but it does
What's pulling the mess into question now is the French wine
crisis. In short, the wine industry's numbers are heading in all
the wrong directions. The world's winemakers' export numbers
are quickly catching up to the once-undisputed king, leaving
Gallic heads spinning. Consumption on the French home front is
down, leaving many viticulturists sitting on growing stocks of
wine. Though winemakers can babble on for hours about the
problems they face, ask them what they think will fix the
problem and you can hear a pin drop.
The message of distress has made it to the top. French
agriculture minister Dominique Bussereau has vowed change.
"The time for reflection is over," he said at June's VinExpo
conference in Bordeaux. "We must act to improve the standing
of French wine on markets at home and abroad."
To act, he said he sees the wine industry working in two
directions. One stressing quality and tradition, the other, in so
many words, chases more of the mass market.
"We must not forget that France can only protect its market
position with quality," he said. "Quality" is the French wine
mantra and seemingly every wine producer across the country
repeats versions of his statement.
Through all the problems, French scientist Philippe Marchenay
believes in the AOC system. He and his partner, Laurence Berard,
literally wrote the book on one of the system's main tenets:
protection of products with terroir, a rather vague
French term that combines words like "heritage" and
It is easy to hear, when Marchenay reels off a list of his favorite
AOC products from around the country, that he recalls the tastes
and regions with each item he mentions.
"An AOC gives you a guarantee that what you're tasting is
making use of the savoir faire of a particular region," he
says, explaining that people are willing to pay a higher price for
this guarantee of quality. "If the consumer isn't interested, he
buys the least interesting stuff and that's it."
In France and abroad, what the AOC is coming up against,
however, is a potential information overload.
Wine is at the heart of the struggle; one of the key components
is sheer numbers. With less than 50 AOC cheeses, for instance,
there is a reasonable chance that a self-respecting Frenchman
can work his way through remembering what's what. With 407
wines, however, it gets a bit out of control, even for those who
are do their best to keep consumption numbers high.
Champagne, a shining AOC success, rode the wave to the hilt
but does it really do much good to classify lesser-known wines?
AOC La Clape, anyone? In France, no one knows what these
wines might taste like; abroad, no one has ever heard of them.
In Paris, a representative at the Institut National des Appellations
d'Origine (INAO), the government body that governs how AOCs
are run, is surprisingly frank.
"The AOC is for a certain number of producers but, maybe, there
are limits to that," says chief spokeswoman Sylvie Serra.
"Eventually, you hit a ceiling. Twenty years ago, this wasn't the
case." Now, the system seems to be reaching its saturation
point, and a handful of AOCs without a market at home or
abroad are in danger of dying out.
"When it's done well, it works," says Serra, who can cite a large
number of AOCs that enjoy up to an estimated 30 percent price
increase thanks to the three letters on their labels. "There's a
diversity of flavor where everyone can find their own favorite
taste. Even someone who is not rich can find something
pleasant," she says.
Is the diversity, which some feel to be bordering on the extreme,
compatible with the international market? "Certainly not," says
Serra, "At the very beginning, the AOC system wasn't necessarily
made with the international markets in mind. Now, we're asking
ourselves how it fits in."
Outside of the country, when French products come up against
the rest of the products in the wine aisle, it gets worse. Major
"New World" wine producers classify the brunt of their wines the
same way: by grape varietal. Consumers enjoy comparing a
varietal they enjoy from Australia to one in the US, Chile or
South Africa. AOCs, on the other hand, tend to be blends of
wine, leaving consumers to wonder why they should bother
taking a risk on something relatively unknown like an AOC
"[Smaller AOCs] are going to find that they there's a lot more
competition out there," says Elizabeth Barham, an assistant
professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri-
Columbia and one of the US's leading AOC experts. "Americans
don't know where these [small-producing] places are."
Barham sees a positive trend in the United States that could be
beneficial, as increasingly consumers are interested in where
their food comes from. "Some say consumers can't deal with
complicated things, but I don't agree," she says. "I see the
American palate becoming more and more complex all the
For part of the solution, Barham echoes the French minister's
mantra. "Once you reach a certain level of quality, that's what
the consumer will reward. I'd hate to see [the French] weaken
Scientist Marchenay seems to agree. "My kids adore McDo," he
says, somehow conveying a wince over the telephone line when
he utters the colloquial French term for McDonalds, "but they
don't go because the food is good."
The Golden Arches signals a certain known experience. If the
AOC can win back control of its system, consumers will choose
an unknown wine precisely because it has a seal to assure them
of a certain quality of experience.
Joe Ray is a Paris-based freelance journalist specializing in food,
travel and analysis pieces. He writes for major dailies and
magazines around the world. His work can be found on joe-