For many wine drinkers France still leads the way. In a recent survey regular wine drinkers were asked to identify wine regions and seven out of the top 10 were French regions. The only non-French regions mentioned were Rioja (Spain), Chianti (Italy) and the Napa Valley (California). That is pretty telling and taken as a cue by the French that their ‘Appellations’ rock.That may be the case for those that most of us would know, regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne and Chablis for example, which don’t struggle for recognition. But what about Costieres de Nimes or Lirac? Is there value in putting those names on a label or do they end up just confusing the average wine drinker? Would you know what you were drinking if you bought a bottle with one of those names on the label?
The French have long held the belief that the sense of place is crucial to their wines. This concept, referred to as ‘terroir’ is central to the principle of Appellations. A few years ago I witnessed an ‘average wine consumer’ asking a winemaker from Burgundy what grape variety was used to make their red wine. The sense of surprise was followed by a Gallic shrug and then a matter of fact statement along the lines of ‘well…Pinot Noir, of course!’. It may be blatantly obvious to those who are in the know, but many people still don’t realise that Chablis is made from Chardonnay for example. This sums up the idea the French have that the grape variety comes way down the list in terms of importance. For that reason the grape variety often isn’t even mentioned on the label, assuming it is allowed to be on the label. Now consider that the same study concluded that grape variety is a very important cue for the regular wine drinker when buying wine, it seems to me this may be a missed opportunity. Speaking to some French producers earlier this week many of them are trying to find a way to use this information to help the average consumer by making labels easier to understand. One supermarket wine buyer actually called for some of the lesser known Appellations to come together under some sort of umbrella brand to help the wine drinking public.
You may like the mystery that is often attached to these strange names, evoking far-flung places but sometimes it helps just to know what you’re drinking. A votre santé!