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Wine Trends in France

by Mark Simpson March 20, 2006

The Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival

Now THIS is great wine event. I have been to many wine and beer events over the years, but this event ranks as one of the best places to try some fantastic wines from all over the world.  

One of the key requirements of a successful application for a winery booth at this event is that a principal (i.e. the winemaker or a senior representative of the winery) must attend and present the wines in person. Every year a different theme country and varietal is selected, with this year’s themes being France and Pinot Noir.

I approached this year’s festival with great ambitions to learn some secrets of French winemaking through dialogue with some of these industry veterans. Sometimes in the game of being a writer, articles take on a life of their own and evolve through experience and this one is no exception.

I had grand designs about unearthing cutting edge viticulture and enology techniques during the show that I could use right here in BC. In reality I became more intrigued by the positioning of French Wines as an industry and what lessons could be learned here at home.

Appellation d'Origine Controlee

The French Government regulates the premium wines of France through a designation called “AOC” or Appellation d‘Origine Controlee. This is taken seriously by the French and a breach or fraudulent treatment of these regulations can mean criminal charges and serious loss of reputation.

In a recent case, Charles Deboeuf Wines (creator of the Beaujolais Nouveau marketing phenomenon) got in trouble when a middle manager tried to put a lesser grade in wine in a higher priced blend. This blending miscue was a discovered in a routine government inspection and resulted in major embarrassment for the winemaker, one of France’s oldest and most revered, and resulted in a significant damage control effort and public apologies by the wine companies’ principals.

This outcry would never happen in North America, where business people who take on government bureaucracy can easily attain folk hero status instead of being shamed. The AOC rules are based on the concept of “local, honest, consistent winemaking practices” and include the following elements: designated production area or “terroir”, upper limits of vineyard yield, control of grape varieties used, minimum alcohol content, cultivation techniques, tasting criteria and aging techniques. There are also very specific regulations regarding labeling and naming of the wines, specifically a ban against naming the grape varieties used in a blend.

In a strange twist, the AOC wines of Alsace ARE allowed to be named by grape variety. Can somebody please explain this one to me? These restrictive practices prevent the winemaker from giving critical information to the consumer about the raw materials used in the blend. This influences the wine-labeling to be more romantic, mystical and to this wine drinker, mysterious.

In a related piece of news, the Europeans recently changed the rules to allow wines made from oak products (i.e. chips, staves, extracts etc.) to be sold in Europe as opposed to wines only aged in oak barrels.  There is no substitute for barrel aging, but I have used these oak products and derivatives to good effect in my own winemaking and they have their valid place in my toolbox.

Now imagine the competitive pressures building against French wines by the practices of other nations such as Australia, featuring easily understood labels, that tell you what is used in the blend, and other pieces of information that engage the consumer, unlike a picture of a chateau you have never visited or an appellation you cannot pronounce.  

I have studied the various appellations, and maps of France and am only now beginning to appreciate the difference between the Syrah based wines of the Rhone and the Pinot Noir based wines of Burgundy for example. Of course what matters is what is in the bottle and the French don’t disappoint. I tasted some fabulous wines at the show, especially red wines from the Rhone, Languedoc and Bordeaux. They were generally austere, complex and layered, and all different. I love French wine. I can get over the labeling thing as long as they keep doing a good job inside the bottle. “Vinas Veritas”.

I must also mention the great white wines of Alsace that hug the border with Germany. Hugel and Pierre Sparr are my favourite wineries and I always go back to great grapes like Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris.

Technical Trends

The two interesting technical trends I unearthed were the practices of blending of red wines made with traditional open vessel “cap punching” (meaning fermenting on submerged grape skins) with wines made with carbonic maceration.  

This technique brings back some of the lively fruit notes one would find in Beaujolais Nouveau type Gamay Noir wines with the deep and earthy tannins and strong color extraction that come from extended skin contact with the oxygenation inherent in pump overs. I am dying to try this one myself next crush.

On the viticulture side, higher trellising is being used (up to two meters high) to maximize sun exposure opportunities and canopy ventilation, especially in rainy areas.   

The main theme was fanatical attention to terroir and expressing the opportunities inherent in the soil and indigenous grape varieties without trying to massage them. This is somewhat different form the approach of some California winemakers, who are planting new non-indigenous varieties and getting out the chemistry set to make good wine by trying to add something above what the grapes themselves offer. Some examples of these products are: lees extracts, grape skin extracts, oak by products and tannins etc.

Winemakers - part of the soil?

The most interesting theme I encountered was the thought that terroir also includes the winemakers as well.  If many generations of winemaking families work the same soil and vines for decades, this built-up knowledge becomes an asset of that region, which makes for magnificent wines during great vintages.

The true BC winemakers who have many vintages under their belt are currently a small and select group, but talented. There are few names that come to mind, but they get enough media coverage already, so I will keep my favourite winemaker to myself for now. You know who you are.

Industry Authority

The next key development in our industry will be the evolution of the BC Wine Authority, which will take over technical stewardship of the VQA designation from the BC Wine Institute. This body is currently run by key industry volunteers, who will pass the reins of leadership very soon to an “arms length” board.  

It is my sincere hope that this new body continues to fuel the growth of the BC wine industry with informed, flexible and entrepreneurial leadership. My future as a consulting winemaker depends on it.

Mark is a Vancouver, BC based Winemaker and Brewmaster who operates Artisan Group Food and Beverage Consulting.

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Mark Simpson
Mark Simpson


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