27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 25

11 The Soul of Wine


It CHEATING the untutored wine-drinker has been an art in France for a num- ber of years. It has had to be very artful indeed since the stricter application of the appellation laws, but there is still no control in wine labelling to compare with the Acquit Janne d'Or awarded to the authentic products of the Cognac Y 44. Armagnac regions by the French Govern-

ent. There is even a rule that every warehouse

0 to store these precious brandies shall have ii Open and public highway from its door if

connects with any other wine or spirit store.

us the French Government battles to preserve C Purity and therefore the reputation of cognac. e This and the use of a gaggle of odd symbols

d names •to distinguish one cognac from Other may seem all too fussy and elaborate,

d to a degree it is. Take the word 'Napoleon,' r example. There has been a great deal of b nscnse talked about Napoleon brandy, but in C trade the word is a conventional designa- II for a brandy of great age (because of the nding a strict term of years is not claimed, it may be fifteen to twenty) and high quality. e firm of Courvoisier shyly insist that their use file name is possibly more appropriate than ns,t because the Courvoisier family, none of °In survive, had close personal connections Napoleon Ill and presumably studied his iri Inous preferences. the practice of 'refreshing' old casks with ling brandy confuses the age issue. At one C cognac shippers used nine or ten designa- ns on their casks and labels. From one to 3 stars, according to age and strength, initials as VO and VVO (whose meaning is clear Indefinite) and, of course. VSOP, translated ,1,0cal cynics to mean Tieillard Sans Opinion `Nue' or Wersez Sans Oublier Personne.' I013 of these, different firms piled splendid

and resounding descriptions such as Cour Im- periale, Extra Vieille, Cordon Argent and, most important of the lot, Fine Champagne. While all the other terms are indicators of a high quality guaranteed only by the standing of the particular distiller or blender, the term Fine Champagne is backed by law. Today only three-star, VSOP and Extra Vieille (or its equivalent, e.g., Cordon Bleu) are used.

The Cognac district, as Remy-Martin back labels show, is marked out in zones. The Grande Champagne is the area from which come the best brandies. The next quality is the Petite Champagne, seldom if ever used on labels because of the derogatory adjective. And in ever-increas- ing circles the Borderies, the Fins Bois and the Bois Ordinaires. Fine Champagne means that the grapes came from the two inner regions. Cognac simply means that the brandy is a blend of any or all, but there is unlikely to be any product of the Fine Champagne in an ordinary blend.

VSOP does, in fact, stand for Very Superior Old Pale, and survives from the days when pallor and fineness were the two qualities sought after by connoisseurs of brandy-and-water. As these were mainly North Europeans, the English phrase stuck.

As with wine—and, as Maurice Healy says, 'brandy is the soul of wine'—the quality of the vintage varies from harvest to harvest. Blending is highly skilled guesswork in consequence. But the customer likes to be sure of the marque he is paying for and, while he is unlikely to notice

subtle shifts in flavour over the years, he is certain to spot changes in colour. Colour is,

therefore, occasionally 'balanced' with burnt- sugar syrup. If some blenders 'balance' taste, too, with a touch of vanilla, it is not as sinful as it sounds, horrifying though it may be to the sen- sitive cognac consumer. (Healy accused them of using prune juice to darken cognac, but there is little likelihood that it is now a widespread practice. The blenders never rely on colour but on 'nose.)

Maurice Healy denied in Stay Me with Flagons that brandy darkened much with age. It cer-

tainly cannot once it leaves the wood (hence it is futile to 'lax down' brandy in bottle; in glass it is chemically inert, though it will attack the cork if not kept upright), but in cask it will go on gaining colour for many years. But some cognacs look too dark to be altogether true.

The main colour and some of the, peculiar flavour of cognac works out of the Limousin oaken casks during the three years that the spirit lies in the wood. A lot of it is tannin. The more years that the spirit and the wood .are in con- tact, the mellower becomes the compound. "[here is also a great loss of alcohol by evaporation (the Customs allow 5 per cent a year by volume), which explains the high price of old brandy. In- cidentally, no age claims can be made for cognac beyond the statutory three years (for admission to Britain) or five years (for other countries), since a decree of the Bureau National Inter- professionel du Cognac, promulgated in Britain this year by the Brandy Shippers' Association, nor are there any longer to. be 'vintage years.' The Service de Repression des Fraudes recently affirmed that they actively dispute any such claims.

A snail in a bottle of ginger beer in 1932. dead and decomposing though he was, became an important figure in the history of consumer protectiort. Until Donoghue v. Stevenson, which was fought right to the House of Lords and even then relied on a three-to-two majority, the .duty of the manufacturer towards the ultimate con- sumer of his goods was far from clear. For cen- turies the law derived much of its attitude towards disputes between buyers and sellers from the mediwval concepts of caveat emptor and market overt.

Even today, as we have seen in the last two or three years, consumers are generally unaware of their rights under. the Sale of Goods Act, and would cheerfully sign them away on a warranty form. Conditions printed in microscopic type on the back of agreements for hire or hire-Pur- chase are seldom scrutinised and usually difficult to follow, being couched in drafting lawyers' jargon.

Add to this the nature of the 'market' today, no longer 'overt,' with goods openly on display to be handled and inspected, and comprising goods of a highly technical nature constructed quite often from new materials sometimes not sufficiently understood by the manufacturers themselves, and the case for some kind of pro- tective legislation for buyers and hirers is reasonably well supported.

The progress towards this kind of impartial protection by Parliament and the courts of the person now designated consumer has been charted in detail by two young lawyers, Gordon Borne, a lecturer at the Law Society, and Aubrey Diamond, a solicitor and a member of the Con- sumer Council, in a new Pelican, The Consumer, Society and the Law. At five shillings this is good value for money.