Matters of Trust: The Origin of France's AOC System

Trust is the foundation of all relationships.  It is often thought of as a virtue, an innate characteristic of good people.  But, while it sounds cynical, trust is ultimately a set of expectations about the behavior of another.  And a real feeling of trust only develops through personal experience.  For example, as a person continues to meet or exceed expectations, trust grows and more time and energy naturally flow to that relationship.  Small missteps of a trusted friend are forgiven.  Conversely, repeated failure to meet expectations undermines and ultimately dooms relationships.  Once trust is broken, it takes commitment to rebuild it.

Wine, as a product, has long engendered trust issues on the part of its devotees.  In addition to being relatively expensive, it can be difficult to distinguish between different types of wine.  Most problematically, there is little recourse for the consumers who realize they have been cheated.  Thus, since its discovery, there has been real tension between producers who establish their reputation by making the best possible wines and those who seek to gain an unearned windfall off of other’s reputations.  It must have been a problem as far back as the 1st century BC, because archaeological evidence shows that ancient Greeks of Thásos, in an effort to limit wine fraud, mandated the style and size of wine vessels, and required the name of the magistrate on its seal.  However, fraud prevention measures aside, the better wine producers and merchants largely policed themselves out of an awareness that diminished consumer trust would undermine demand for fine wine.

However, with the arrival of Phylloxera in the late 19th century, not only were vineyards throughout Europe threatened, but so was the very foundation of this trust in the wine trade.  It came to a head in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a wine region near Avignon in southern France.  Since the 14th century, Châteauneuf-du-Pape was famous for powerful red blends brimming with fruit and spice, as well as -- more recently -- its formidable white wines.  With Phylloxera tearing through French vineyards, there was a sudden, serious shortage of fine wine, including those made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  In response, wine producers in Languedoc and the then French colony, Algeria -- both less affected by Phylloxera -- churned out massive amounts of mediocre wines to slake the market’s thirst.  This placed quality winemakers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and elsewhere, in a bind.  Not only did they have to invest in rebuilding their vineyards; they were looking at several years of lost income while waiting for the new vines to bear fruit.  Faced with near certain financial devastation, winemakers began to “supplement” their own meagre production with the -- to be charitable -- more ordinary wines of Languedoc and Algeria.  These wines were then bottled and sold under the label “Châteauneuf-du-Pape” to soon-to-be disappointed consumers throughout Europe.

As the redeveloped vineyards began to produce high quality wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, producers found it difficult to command their pre-Phylloxera prices.  This was of particular concern because the best producers had spent heavily to return to form after Phylloxera’s ruin.  Understanding that consumers would never pay a premium when the contents of the bottle were in question, Baron Pierre le Roy, owner of Château Fortia, approached his fellow producers in Châteuneuf-du-Pape.  By 1923, the producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape were holding themselves to a strict code of rules: (i) delimiting the area where grapes could come from, (ii) specifying which grapes could be included in the wine, (iii) prohibiting the addition of anything other than grapes, and (iv) requiring a minimum alcohol content of 12.5%.

Consumers took notice.  And as they resumed paying high prices for Châteauneuf-du-Pape, other wine regions noticed as well.  In 1935, France established the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) to enforce similar codes of conduct for all of the recognized wine regions of France.  This became known as the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system.  Other winegrowing countries followed suit, with Spain and Italy adopting similar systems, abbreviated as DO and DOC respectively.  Today, all member nations of the EU have some form of appellation system.  Even the US, in a nod to the AOC system, has established 230 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) since 1980, with the caveat that AVAs only delimit where grapes come from and are silent as to winegrowing and production.

So, while an AOC designation may not tell you whether the Châteauneuf-du-Pape on the menu tastes $20 better than the Côtes du Rhône, at least you can trust what’s in the bottle.  And if it turns out to be worth the premium, here’s hoping that it’s a step towards a lasting relationship.

Trust Me, They're Good

Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be rather expensive and, AOC regulations aside, quality varies quite a lot between producers.  One of my favorite producers is Château de Beaucastel, but their excellence comes at a relatively steep price.  That being said, directly across the street from their flagship property -- and outside the Châteauneuf-du-Pape zone -- is the Coudoulet de Beaucastel.  From this land, Beaucastel makes a fantastic, and reasonably priced, Côtes du Rhône with the same grape varieties that will provide a good sense of the quality Châteauneuf-du-Pape can offer.  Additionally, for those looking to try something from the New World, look at Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Owned by the Perrin Family -- owners of Beaucastel -- Tablas Creek makes a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-style red called the Espirit de Tablas, which is also really well done.