Millar's Tale: Call me by my name
Students who sit their wine exams all around the world have long been familiar with the complicated classifications with which European wines are labeled, enshrining the idea that grapes are capable of articulating their origins, and that grapes grown in different sites will produce wines of different quality and nuance of flavour.
The idea that wine might only be made in a delimited area dates to the 18th century in Tuscany and the Douro, while the quality distinction between different plots of earth were formally defined in Hungarian Tokaj in 1757, even if they had been articulated informally long before in ancient Rome and the monastic vineyards of the Rhineland and Burgundy.
The modern appellation system, based on the French model pioneered by Baron Le Roy in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in 1923, has become one of the EU’s flagship agricultural policies. Such appellation-style policies have been adopted outside Europe as well, as intelligent wine producers have come to understand that the sense of identity they provide gives wine one of its USPs.
Yet speaking to producers, customers and even retailers, you don’t exactly come away with a positive feeling about these systems. From a winery point of view, appellations are often seen as necessary evils with a huge bureaucratic burden for smaller wineries. One producer described his appellation as “an anchor around my foot”, and some choose to leave their appellation’s confines once their own reputations can sustain them. Others complain about a lack of freedom to innovate, an increasing necessity in a highly competitive and globalised marketplace.
It is unlikely that even a keen amateur wine drinker would be able to give details of their favourite region’s regulations. Few customers I speak to know that Prosecco is a region, not a grape, and the majority believe that all Riesling is sweet. There is clearly a failure to educate people about appellations in a way that will ensure their effectiveness.
Some appellations, such as Rioja, have traditionally housed a vast set of wine styles with little coherence beyond oak ageing but which have name recognition tantamount to a global brand. Many others are narrowly pedantic, legislating not just on wine style but viticultural practice, harvesting dates and alcoholic strength. Where one appellation might blur the lines in an attempt to make an impact, another doubles down on technical criteria that appear largely irrelevant. Despite the introduction of pan-national PGI and PDO legislation, this is far from a coherent organism.
While all these contradictions are evolving, new appellations are being created annually with dubious merit. Perhaps in 200 years I’ll eat my words, but I don’t fancy the chances of AOC Orléans (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) and AOC Orléans-Cléry (Cabernet Franc, of course) in the big wide world, not least because I have never seen a bottle of either since the appellations were created more than a decade ago.
The appellation system undoubtedly has value but there are no easy answers when it comes to improving it. Abandoning the concept altogether will almost certainly engender a return to the harmful fraud and adulteration it was introduced to prevent. Systems such as the American Viticultural Areas have proven equally problematic, being little more than a geographical designation without any stylistic consistency, and just as prone to confusing proliferation.
The European concept of appellations is valuable and central to quality and authenticity even when the practice falls short. But lack of clarity, consistency and meaningful conversations with the growers threaten to undermine the system. That would be a shame since, in a world of increasing homogenisation, wine drinkers need robust appellations more than ever.