In Defense Wine Classification Systems

It is popular to complain about the various official wine classification systems such as France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) and Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC).  While I agree with some of the complaints, I think they often are borne of unreasonable expectations.  All in all, we are far better with the systems than without them.

In brief the various classifications systems control what a wine can be named.  This will be based first on where the grapes are grown and may also dictate a number of other conditions.  To illustrate I will use a wine I like as an everyday white, St. Veran.

St. Veran is made in and around the community of St. Verand (yes with a “d”, go figure) in the Maconnaise district of France.  The only grape allowed is chardonnay and the final wine must have at least 11% alcohol and cannot have more than 13%.  Production cannot be above 55 hectoliters per hectare.  And so on.

So what does this do for me, the wine buyer?  It makes sure that the wine is generally what I would expect, a moderately light chardonnay from a specific area.  It doesn’t tell me if the wine has been aged in new oak.  It doesn’t tell me if the wine has undergone malo-lactic fermentation.  It doesn’t tell me if sophisticated temperature controls and filters were used or if it was put in a barrel and drawn off when needed.  Most importantly it doesn’t tell me if it’s any good.

The last item is what most of the complaints are about.  Well I am not sure I want a government agency telling me if a wine is good.  Nor do I want them exercising such tight controls on a wine that all wines with certain names taste the same (i.e., the way the government wants them to).  When governments have had that degree of regulation, the wine world tends to scream that they are stifling diversity and sacrificing quality for constituency.  They usually are right too.  Just look at Chianti before the Super Tuscan movement forced the government to change overly restrictive laws.

My point is you can’t have it both ways.  Sure regulators make some bone headed and/or politically driven decisions.  But the system more or less works.  When you buy a St. Veran you pretty much know what to expect.  Chances are it will be pretty good too.

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