22 JULY 1972, Page 25

The Good Life

Tempest in the tastevins

Pamela Vandyke Price

Some topics, like going to the dentist, 'come round.' It is traditionally the silly season (although these days silliness isn't restricted to days when one is supposed to be warm and amiable), and therefore the way in which AOC has surged into the public prints shouldn't have surprised me. But I do wish those who hail its advent as the millenium and who are briskly attacking the unscrupulous British wine trade, had also found out what it really is — and how ' it affects the wily French producer.

An Appellation d'Origine Controlee is rather similar to a pedigree or an entry in Who's Who: it tells you what the commodity is. It doesn't tell you what it is like. The AOC is granted by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine des Vins et Eaux de Vie. Each application for an AOC is considered individually, according to its area, and takes into consideration the demands of the local syndicates of wine growers. (In his it differs rather radically from the Italian DOC system, which operates centrally, from Rome.) But in general, what the rules do is define: the exact area from which the wine (or spirit comes; the type of grapes planted; the method of pruning and training the vines; the amount planted per hectare (2.471,05 acres); the minimum amount of sugar in the 'must' (the unfermented grape juice); the minimum degree of alcohol in the finished wine; the maximum production of wine per hectare in hectolitres (a hectolitre is about 22.4 gallons). The AOC is also subject to the granting of the label,' awarded annually as the result of tastings arranged by the local committees concerned with the wines.

Now all this, like a good education, a happy home and long, straight legs, is im portant. But just as a human being can have these three assets and be utterly nasty, so can a 100 per cent genuine AOC wine. The AOC can only imply quality. It cannot guarantee it.

All right — what about those local tastings? I cannot suppose that a wine of evil smell and taste would be passed by them -because the public are not fools and such 'tasting committees do want potential customers to remain buyers. But if you were hesitating between a wine slightly doubtful as regards the quality you associa ted with the local product, and you thought

— with or without knowledge — that the particular wine was one made by some

body who was a near neighbour, with whom you did good business and whom you liked as a friend, would you — bearing in mind that you too might have wines that could be subjected to his judgment at some time — be rigorously severe about it? And of course you would feel about your own wines as people do about their children — partisan.

The AOC regulations are good by intention. But there are rats in most cellars, and where, I simply ask, is it easier to 'interfere' with a wine, or just spread it out a bit, than where it is made? I do not suppose that the producers of any country are, every single one of them, any more scrupulous than the British wine trade — and there are more scrupulous of both than otherwise, thank goodness.

If the AOC rules are applied and, for perfectly sound reasons, the wine just isn't as good as the conscientious would like it to be — what happens? There is one great Medoc estate where some years ago there was a serious dispute about declassifying (to a lower AOC) certain vattings of one vintage, because one person had standards from which he was not prepared to depart — genuine though the wine was, it was not as good as he thought it should be. There is another one where, for years, wine was made that also made a mockery of a great reputation; there is another where, many of those who taught me would say, the character of the wine is distorted by an individual method of vinification. In Burgundy, one of the greatest of wine merchants asserts, it is essential to have the particular cask you buy moved that day into your broker's cellars — its quality may interest and, possibly, tempt the grower; or , as a serious and sensitive young British shipper has found, you should set to your own bottling on the spot — for various perfectly good reasons the wine may not take kindly to being moved in bulk.

Yet in all these instances the wines could all have the AOC to which they were entitled — good, bad or unsatisfactory though they might be as wines.

This is why the only safeguard for the customer is, ultimately, his sense. (Sometimes I wonder whether people aren't slightly bonkers when buying wine). If you want a great name on the label that is 100 per cent backed up by what is in the bottle, then you must be willing to pay for it. Chablis and Beaujolais at 50-60p are as silly as a Rembrandt or a half-carat diamond for a fiver). And then you must take the risk as to whether the wine—appella tion d'origine ever so contrOlee though it be—is good. (A non-genuine wine can, also, be a good wine, please note.) If you care

about this last point, then your only 'guarantee ' (for a wine is as much of a gamble

as a love affair—though those who succeed in either don't usually take the risk until they know they will win) is the name of a shipper with a reputation to maintain for integrity as well as knowledge, plus a source of supply that will guide your choice — and want you to come back and buy more. There are still such merchants in Britain.

If, of course, you say you haven't the time/don't know/can't afford — then I'd say, exactly as with a love affair, you don't care. And those who don't care get precisely what they deserve' — disappointment. There may still be all kinds of initials (and excuses) on the label.