One in three bottles of appellation controlée wines produced in France is sub-standard, according to the French consumer watch-dog. A survey of wine professionals by the organisation, UFC-Que Choisir, concluded that the supposed local authenticity offered by the label "AOC" – appellation d'origine controlée – has become meaningless.
So many new appellations have been created in recent years, and so much AOC wine is now produced without proper quality checks, that the system has fallen into disrepute, the consumer group said.
It urged the creation of a new system, dividing French wine into properly policed local appellations and more generic wines, based on leading grape varieties, to appeal to "modern" tastes.
The criticism will be fiercely resisted by traditionalists, and some vested interests, in the French wine industry. However, it echoes complaints made by French wine traders and even some wine producers for years. It also adds weight to proposals made by the European Commission in July, which push in broadly the same direction.
Alain Bazot, president of UFC-Que Choisir said: "For years, there has been a steady fall in the quality of many AOC wines which has completely undermined the confidence of consumers in the system."
So many new AOCs had been created, and so much extra production allowed, that the volume of French wine which qualified for an appellation label had increased by 66 per cent in 30 years (from 15 million hectolitres to 25 million).
The consumer group's study found that about 98 per cent of all AOC wine was waved through by the organisations that were supposed to check its quality. These organisations were dominated by the AOC growers themselves, who were therefore "judge and jury" of their own produce.
There are 462 different wine appellations in France. An AOC label is supposed to be the foundation stone of the French approach to wine, based on the supreme importance of terroir or local soil conditions and micro-climate. To qualify for an AOC badge a wine must be produced within a defined area – ranging from a single vineyard to a whole region – and it must obey local regulations on grape varieties and methods of wine-making.
In practice, UFC-Que Choisir said, the rules had become so loosely applied in many cases that some "appellation" wines had no relation to the concept of terroir or local authenticity. It would be much better, the group said, to tighten up the rules and the checks for those wines which could genuinely qualify as local and of high quality. The rest should be encouraged to go into the "new market" for wines sold mostly according to popular grape varieties such as Chardonnay or Merlot.
The consumer group's study will add ammunition to a battle which has been raging within the French wine industry for 10 years or more. Traditionalists resist any attempt to reform the AOC system which, they complain, would encourage a surrender of the French wine heritage to the "New World" factory-based approach to wine. Others protest that the poorer AOCs represent more of a threat to France's reputation and tradition than a shift of some middle market wines to the so-called "Australian" approach, based on grape variety rather than locality.
In any case, they say, the jumble of AOC labels makes French wine harder to sell abroad than simply-labelled New World wines.