Here we visit French history at the beginning of the 20th century to witness the beginning of French wine law. You’ll see mass protests – often violent – consume 3 wine regions: Southern France, Bordeaux and Champagne. Check out the unique perspective of French merchants at the time, the growers and the French government below.
In particular, this post discusses the beginning of French wine law, why you should learn French wine law and why it’s important to have wine laws at all.
This is the third post in a series of 4.
short description of the other posts in this series...
In Part I, we detail how 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed the Vineyards of Europe in the mid-19th century. We tell you what they were, how they got to Europe and the cures eventually found for them.
In Part II, we discuss The Lasting Effects of the Wine Crashes and the Peasant Class. Peasants were the first ones to discover the diseases and the most affected by its detrimental effects. We look at how they tried to mitigate to the loss of their vineyards with hybrid plantings.
Come back for Part IV where we show you how to read a French wine label. As French wine law is so successful, many French terms have been adopted on wine labels all over the world. We’ll tell you what they are and what French wine law is in key wine regions so you know the style of wine inside the bottle.
The Beginning of French Wine Law and Why You Should Learn It
French Wine Law
French wine production has a deeply checkered past.
But that history is the reason why French wine labels are written as they are – they have the names of villages on them and not the grape varieties.
It’s a guarantee that all the grapes for the wine come from that village or region and it’s important for us as consumers.
Because by law each wine region in France has a unique set of laws that governs which grape varieties can be grown, what the allowable yield is (grape yield is a major factor in wine quality), and how the wine must be made.
That’s why it’s important for people who want to understand French wine labels to learn about French wine history.
Appellation d'Origine Protegée or AOP, AOC or just AC
In fact, the French are so successful with their wine region ranking system – the Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée (AOC) now the Appellation d’Origine Protegée (AOP) – it has been copied to varying success throughout the world, including by the European Union.
Because in truth, French wine labels that say AOC, AC, and AOP are a guarantee to consumers that the wine inside is produced according to the very strict viticultural and winemaking choices of that region. So if you know the wine law of each region, you will know what style of wine is inside the bottle.
Why we need wine laws...
Wine laws in France are enforced by very serious fines and jail sentences for those who commit wine fraud in France.
France’s history shows us wine fraud is perhaps the number one reason the world needs wine laws.
In the 19th century, wine fraud ran rampant because of crop failures from new pests and diseases that attacked all of the famous regions of France, Italy and Spain.
Farmers were the first to notice these new diseases. In desperation, they resorted to planting hybrid vines which, at the time, made large amounts of crappy wine.
'Wine' is stretched and made from other things...
To fill the void left when grape crops failed, beet juice was added to fermentation vats to bulk up production. Merchants brought in foreign wine and even made wine from imported dried raisins.
Some of these measures were encouraged by the French government. They relaxed importation duties during shortages to ensure its population had enough wine. As a French citizen, wine is a right bestowed upon you at birth.
However, often liquid sold as wine contained no grape juice at all. Furthermore, barrels of falsified solution were often labelled with famous names of French wine regions including Bordeaux and Bourgogne.
Then, when wine production returned to normal levels in the late 19th century, wine fraud didn’t stop. Nor did it stop at the beginning of the 20th century.
In fact in 1905, a laboratory in Paris randomly tested 617 wine samples and found 500 of them to be doctored or adulterated. Official national ledgers reported that there were at least 15 million hectolitres of artificial wine sold in 1903. That’s the equivalent of 40% of the harvest!
Therefore, in these next lines, you’ll learn how the merchants and the French government reacted to surplus wine stocks at the start of the 20th century. Then you’ll see how 3 regions; Southern France (le Midi), Champagne, and Bordeaux and the various agents within them called for changes.
It is this tumultuous period that issued the beginning of French wine laws today.
The 2oth century...
The 20th century began at first with France, Italy and Spain suffering from poor harvests due to bad weather (in 1902 and 1903). Then these countries quickly switched to bumper crops of surpluses in 1904-1905.
Yet light wines produced in Southern France, or le Midi as its known colloquially in French, continued to be bulked up with wine from Algeria. At the same time, New World brands were increasing competition in the global wine market and gaining market share – threatening French wine hegemony. Moreover, by 1900 French wine sales suffered because export markets began to levy tariffs on them.
By 1907, prices for table wine will hit rock bottom.
The role of the wine merchant...
Wine merchants were in large part the reason why prices fell so precipitously.
Wine merchants have always been important to the French wine trade. Merchants blend wines from different regions to create a standardized product and provide information on quality, source and taste. In fact today, merchants still play a crucial role in the fine and ordinary wine trade of France.
During the 19th century, when barely any wine was being produced in traditional wine regions, the merchants naturally looked elsewhere and often overseas to fill gaps.
Wine storage during the 19th and early 20th century..
Not to mention, there were so many problems with preserving and storing wine at this time.
Subsequently, wine merchants were unlikely to build large warehouses for keeping reserve wine. Instead, they would send all surplus stock for distillation. This meant that they couldn’t count on reserve wines to supplement slim years.
However by 1905 technology was changing. In the Midi, merchants had just learned how to properly store wine.
And then the grape harvests returned; not just back to ‘normal’ levels of production, but to large surpluses.
Unfortunately for the growers, the merchants continued to purchase cheaper wine from outside of their respective wine regions and from outside of the country as well. Compounding the problem, merchants were now for the first time able to draw on reserves they kept in warehouses.
But in the worst cases, unscrupulous merchants sold artificial wines which were not wine at all.
Then there were the external forces. By 1900 old export markets for French wine were shrinking due to tariffs and competition from New World brands.
The role of the French government...
To be fair to the merchants, the French government did relax laws on making wine from imported raisins, and on chaptalization use. Chaptalization is the addition of sugar or grape juice to the grape must for the purposes of increasing alcohol in the final wine. Today, this practice is tightly controlled by law to ensure the integrity of the wine, region and vintage of the grapes. When chaptalization was first invented, merchants were given permision to overuse this tool to stretch poorly grown or unripened grape must.
Further, the government lowered tariffs on wine imports from Spain. These measures helped to meet the high domestic consumption during shortages.
Unfortunately, when the harvests returned, the government either didn’t do enough to reinstate the laws and/or, the merchants ignored them. Furthermore, as now the number of hectares under vine had increased drastically, traditional measures such as import taxation weren’t enough to bring grape prices back.
The farmers revolt...
That’s because farmers had been busy planting and increasing the number of hectares under vine for half a century. Simply because for half a century, they needed more wine. [See How 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed the Vineyards of Europe]
And when prices for grapes hit rock bottom, the farmers across France would revolt.
in the Midi...
In 1907, half a million people assembled in Montpellier in the Midi to protest falsified wines and low prices. They protested wines brought in from Algeria, wine made from raisins and demanded customs on imported wine. They also wanted laws instated against chaptalization.
The army was sent in and gunfire was discharged.
Yet 500 soldiers, all conscripts and volunteers from that very region, mutinied against their government. They then joined the protestors who welcomed them with wine and food.
And throughout the skirmishes, civilians died.
The beginning of wine law in the Midi...
Unable to ignore the strife, especially one where soldiers of the government turned on itself, the government passed laws. In 1905 they lowered the amount of sugar allowed to be used in wine production and made it easier to prosecute offenders. In 1907, they introduced measures to record growers’ production. They also allowed the growers to form an organization, the Confédération générale des vignerons du Midi. The CVG’s mandate was to search out offenders and begin legal proceedings against them.
In 1912, the CVG gained the direct backing of the Ministry of Agriculture.
The lasting effects of the protests in the Midi...
The mobilization of the growers in the Midi spearheaded the beginnings of strong cooperatives in this area lasting until the present day. Les caves coopératives or just les caves are organizations for growers to pool resources like winery equipment and marketing costs.
Unfortunately, the strengthening of cooperatives in the Midi came at a cost. It sacrificed the smaller, higher quality producers of the area.
High quality wines often have higher costs of production. In this case, quality-minded producers could no longer fetch better prices for their wines. The cooperatives’ power in the region – and their collective marketing directive of producing basic table wines – brought the image of the top wines from the region down. Thus, high quality producers were then forced to abandon their better vineyards on the hillsides.
The beginning of French wine law in Champagne...
But, they didn’t.
Champagne, as opposed to any other wine region of France at that time, had cellars with ample stocks of reserve wine. In fact, the large Champagne houses always carry large stocks of aged reserve wine as it is necessary for their Non-Vintage (NV) house blends. Not only does the addition of reserve wine help Champagne producers to sell young wines that display beautiful aged wine characteristics, it also helps keep the NV blends consistent from year to year.
Nonetheless, grape prices also stagnated because merchants continued to bring wine in from outside the region.
In 1910 riots in Champagne erupted. The following year, farmers seized barrels of wine coming from outside Épernay and Reims and destroyed them. The wine was bought for the sole purpose of making into ‘champagne’.
What was the government response? They sent in national troops to prevent farmers from dumping the barrels.
the beginning of French wine law in Bordeaux...
Bordeaux had it’s own set of problems. There were 2 distinct camps here.
In the first, there were the 80 or so top producers who made the famous châteaux brands. These are the domaines listed in the 1855 Classification and include celebrated names such as Château Lafite Rothschild [la-feet roth-shield], Château Haut-Brion [oh bree-ohn where the n is mostly silent as in the French word ‘dans’] and Château Margaux [mar-go]. For these wineries, prices fetched for wine was dependent on quality. Unfortunately, quality was not achievable during the 19th century when diseases wiped out the vineyards.
As a result in the 30-40 years prior to World War I, prices for Médoc vineyards fell by 80%.
The owners of the top Bordeaux Chateaux were just as destitute as the working class farmers of the Midi and of the thousands of Bordelais growers of cheap ‘vin ordinaire’!
Before 4 North American Grapevine Diseases Destroyed the Vineyards in Europe, Bordeaux was in fact the largest supplier of inexpensive wine for the French masses. However, from the 1880’s on, the growers in the Midi gained market share domestically and even within the Bordeaux region itself.
Therefore, the main problem for the Bordelais was of competition within French borders.
Bordeaux was the last wine region to graft their vines onto American rootstocks and replant their vineyards...
Bordeaux’s reputation was, as it is now, dependent on the fine wine trade. Producers here were therefore, the most reluctant to switch their vineyards to grafting onto American rootstocks to prevent phylloxera. Naturally, they wanted to make sure that this test proved fruitful in fighting phylloxera before replanting their prized vineyards. (Phylloxera is a louse that destroyed 40% of France’s vineyards in the 19th century and continues to wreak havoc today).
Since Bordeaux was slower to replant, they lost ground to competitors.
Furthermore, Bordeaux had higher production costs than in the Midi while at the same time freight rates to bring wine from the Midi were very low.
Competition from inexpensive Midi wines effectively put a cap on what Bordelais growers could fetch for grapes.
Climate also played a role as grapevines grown in the warmer temperatures of the Midi produce higher yields of consistently ripe grapes. That’s not the case in Bordeaux. Bordeaux is a cooler, maritime climate which causes higher levels of fungal diseases that lowers yields of healthy grapes.
how the growers, the merchants and the top 80 famous chateaux in Bordeaux react...
So growers of inexpensive wine in Bordeaux lobbied local and national governments for a new ‘Bordeaux’ appellation. They took to the streets to protest the cheap wine brought from the Midi (that was then bottled and labelled as ‘Bordeaux’).
Certainly, the aromas, the fruity flavours and indeed the structure of Midi wines did not resemble anything of the aromas and flavours of wines from Bordeaux.
But not everyone supported this. Indeed, the merchants opposed it because now they would have extra taxes and accounting to do. Frustratingly this coincided with historically low prices for finished wine. To them, there was no reason to have a ‘Bordeaux’ appellation since it could only guarantee a wine’s origin, not its quality.
The Bordelais producers of the top chateaux were also dissatisfied. These were the 80 chateaux mentioned above who are famously enshrined in the 1855 Classification for the Paris World Exposition.
Bordeaux's new wine law...
In 1907, a law was passed stating that growers had to declare the size of their harvests. Then, they could only produce as much wine as their declared harvest could make.
But according to records, growers greatly exaggerated the size of their harvest in 1907-1908. Presumably, this was so they could bulk up their sales with cheap wine from the Midi!!
So, it wasn’t just the merchants who were bringing in wines from outside the region!
And arguably, it was the merchants who saved the day for many growers in Bordeaux. Merchants in 1907 signed 6-year contracts with at least 60 growers (and at least half of the growths in the Classification) to buy their grapes. This provided some security and stability for a time.
In 1911, France delimited the region surrounding the famous Bordelais river, the Gironde. This new jurisdiction would have a governing board for grapes covering the ‘Gironde départment’. Eventually in 1935, Bordeaux AOC was founded.
The beginning of French wine law (brief timeline overview)...
Today, wine regions of France- of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Chablis, Côtes du Rhône, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Côte Rôtie etc etc- each have their own set of wine laws so that when you purchase a French wine bottle, the quality and the style of wine is guaranteed by French government organizations.
It’s France’s checkered history of vine disease, grape shortages, wine fraud and violent protest that brought these laws into effect. The regions of Southern France (le Midi), Bordeaux and Champagne and the actors within them each contributed to the beginning of French wine law and the creation of AOC.
Visit us again for our fourth and final installment on why you should learn the history of French wine law. You’ll see how to read a French wine label and understand the most common AOC’s to know what kind of wine is inside the bottle.
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“Cooperation and Conflicts: Institutional Innovation in France’s Wine Markets, 1870-1911” by James Simpson. In The Business History Review Vol. 79, No. 3 (Autumn, 2005), pp. 527-558. Published by the President and Fellows of Harvard and found on https://www.jstor.org/.
Website for the Grandes Marques Houses of Champagne: https://maisons-champagne.com/en/houses/the-champagne-houses/article/grandes-marques-champagne-houses-10-criteria
“The Great French Wine Blight” by Pat Montague and published in Wine Tidings No. 96, July/August, 1986. https://web.archive.org/web/20110726032037/http://www.wampumkeeper.com/wineblight.html
“Organization Change and Vinification Cooperatives in France’s Midi” by Tervor M. Knox, Department of Economics Working Paper Series, July 1998, pp 1-45. Published by UCONN Library, University of Connecticut https://opencommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1323&context=econ_wpapers
“The Oxford Companion to Wine” Edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. Oxford University Press, 2015. Entries on “Adulteration and Fraud”, “AOC”, “Bordeaux”, “Bordeaux AOC”, “France”, “Cooperatives”, “INAO”
“Revolt of the Languedoc Winegrowers” in Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved on July 17, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolt_of_the_Languedoc_winegrowers