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The Beginning of French Wine Law in Champagne, Bordeaux and Southern France

Why You Should Learn the History of French Wine Law - Part III​

Explore the whirlwind of French history amidst the backdrop of early 20th-century history. Here we’ll experience the fervour of mass protests, occasionally erupting into violence, sweeping through three iconic wine regions: Southern France, Bordeaux, and Champagne. Peek into the world of French merchants, growers, and government officials of the era – each with their own colourful perspective. This tale not only sheds light on the intricacies of French wine law but also highlights the the importance of having robust wine regulations in place.

 

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.

The Beginning of French Wine Law and Why You Should Learn It

French wine production has a deeply checkered past.

But that history is the reason why French wine labels are written as they are; French wines have the names of villages on them and not the grape varieties

It’s a legal guarantee that all the grapes for the wine come from that village or region and it’s important for us as consumers. Today, if the wine comes from somewhere else, the law enforces very serious fines and jail sentences for those who commit wine fraud.

Because each wine region in France has a unique set of laws that governs which grape varieties can be grown, what the allowable yield is, and how the wine must be made.

This means, the village name and or regional name on a French wine label tells you how that wine tastes. Hence, after taking wine courses, we are able to tell others what a wine tastes like before we open the bottle. .
 

But to really understand French wine labels we should learn French wine history. And one only needs to look over the last century to see why wine fraud is the number one reason the world needs wine laws.

'Wine' is stretched and made from other things...

In the 19th century, a wave of crop failures wreaked havoc across the renowned wine regions of France, Italy, and Spain, leaving vineyards vulnerable to new pests and diseases. Desperate to maintain production levels, winemakers turned to unconventional measures, including the addition of beet juice to fermentation vats to bolster yields. Moreover, merchants resorted to importing foreign wines and, in some cases, even crafting wine from imported dried raisins.

Indeed, some of these tactics received tacit approval from the French government, which, in times of shortage, eased importation duties to ensure the populace had an adequate supply of wine. After all, for a French citizen, the enjoyment of wine is considered an inherent birthright.

However, the darker side of this crisis emerged when fraudulent practices became rampant. Many wines sold under prestigious labels contained little to no grape juice at all. Barrels of adulterated concoctions were shamelessly labelled with the revered names of French wine regions, including Bordeaux and Bourgogne.

As rampant wine fraud continued unchecked, grape prices plummeted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jeopardizing the livelihoods of countless growers. Faced with the imminent threat of financial ruin, the people took to the streets in protest, demanding that the government safeguard their most precious commodity: their wine.

 

 

 
 
 

 

When finally wine production returned to normal levels in the late 19th century, it didn’t stop wine fraud. Nor did it stop at the beginning of the 20th century. Fake wine kept flooding the market.

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!

So let’s dive into how both the merchants and the French government handled the surplus wine situation kicking off the 20th century. Then, brace yourself for a ride through three hotspots: Southern France, Champagne, and Bordeaux, along with all the players in the game, rallying for some serious changes.

It is this tumultuous period that issued the beginning of French wine laws today.

poster in Le Monde Illustré in 1870 of fake wine being dumped into the Gironde River in Bordeaux
Le Monde Illustré n° 674, 1870, the administration pours fake wines seized in the Entrepôts de Paris into the Seine. The Beginning of French Wine Law. Image Public Domaine in Wikimedia Scan book JPS68 via photoshop

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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, quickly switched over 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 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.

So 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. Unfortunately, their policies contributed to the drop in prices.

 

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 learned how to properly store wine.

And just 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 and is limited in its use to ensure the integrity of the wine. 

However when there were severe grapes shortages, the government allowed merchants to add lots of sugar to beef up the supply of wine.

Furthermore, the government lowered tariffs on wine imports from Spain. These measures helped to meet the high domestic consumption during shortages.

Unfortunately though, 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.

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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...

The situation in Southern France is quite intriguing because the defense of wine was unified; it brought together all social and political factions. Merchants, farmers, senators, and deputies joined forces, presenting a united front.

It started small.
 
In March, 300 people met in Sallèles-d’Aude. In May, 80,000 took to the streets. A week later, 120,000 in Narbonne… then 300,000 in Carcasonne!
 
Demonstrations of this scale were previously unknown in France.

 

Cartoon illustration of the farmers of the Midi fortifying a blockcade. "Latest news, we just sold half a barrel of wine in the south!"
"Lastest news, we just sold half a barrel of wine in the south!" Illustration by Marcel Capy

Picture this scene: it’s 1907, and half a million individuals gather in Montpellier, in the heart of the Midi, fueled by frustration over counterfeit wines and plummeting prices. Their grievances extend to imported wines from Algeria, as well as wines concocted from raisins. Their demands are clear: they want tariffs imposed on imported wines and regulations established against chaptalization.

Tensions escalate to the point where the military is deployed, resulting in gunfire. However, in a surprising turn of events, 500 soldiers, hailing from the very region they were meant to suppress, stage a mutiny against their own government. Instead of siding with authority, they join forces with the protestors, who greet them with open arms, offering wine and sustenance.

Amidst the chaos, civilian casualties mount, underscoring the gravity of the situation.

 

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...

Uniquely, 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.

The beginning of French wine law in Champagne...

 

In Champagne, the grape shortages lasted longer than in other areas and they didn’t have periods of crop surpluses. You would therefore, assume that grape prices would rise since shortages would create greater demand.
 

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.

Fast forward to 1910, and Champagne becomes a boiling cauldron of riots. The very next year, enraged farmers take matters into their own hands, intercepting barrels of wine en route to Épernay and Reims from outside regions, determined to prevent their transformation into “champagne”.

But here’s the kicker: instead of yielding to the farmers’ fury, the government opts for a heavy-handed approach. They dispatch national troops, poised to thwart any attempts by the farmers to dump the barrels.

 

Because of the history of French wine law - the trellising system, the grape yield and the amount you can squeeze from the grapes as well as the price you can get for them- is all tightly controlled in the Champagne region. Photo: Montagne de Reims by artJazz, iStock
Image of Chateau Canon in Bordeaux, why sommeliers and online wine students need to learn the history of French wine law
There were 2 camps in Bordeaux with different needs in the history of French wine law. In the first, were the 80 or so producers of high quality wine made at famous 'Chateaux'. "Bordeaux" by luca.sartoni is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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] 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.

 

So for the 30-40 years prior to World War I, prices for Médoc vineyards fell by 80%.

Therefore, 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, not from outside.

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. Therefore, the Bordelais were most reluctant to graft their vines onto American rootstocks. Recommended as a way to prevent vine death from phylloxera, there was no guarantee this would produce high quality wine.

Naturally, they wanted to make sure that this test proved fruitful first – 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. At the same time freight rates to bring wine from the Midi were very low.

So overall, it was competition from inexpensive Midi wines that effectively put a cap on what Bordelais growers could fetch for grapes.

In addition, 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’s moderate, rainy climate.

 

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.

On the other hand, the producers of the top Bordelais chateaux were also dissatisfied.

Merlot from St.Émilion ages so well because it has cool, limestone subsoils which help maintain the acidity in the grapes.
Vineyard in St. Émilion, Bordeaux Photo by samael334 in iStock

Bordeaux's new wine law...

 

Back in 1907, a pivotal law was enacted, mandating growers to disclose the extent of their harvests. The catch? They could only produce wine equivalent to their declared yields.

Here’s where things get interesting… historical records reveal a widespread tendency among growers to significantly inflate their harvest sizes during the 1907-1908 period. 

Why? Well, it seems they were eager to augment their sales with cheaper wines sourced from the Midi. Shocking, isn’t it? As it turns out it wasn’t just the merchants bringing in cheaper wines from outside Bordeaux!

Interestingly, in Bodeaux’s case, it was the merchants who emerged as unsung heroes, coming to the rescue of struggling growers. In 1907, these savvy merchants inked long-term contracts spanning six years with at least 60 growers (representing half of the growths in the Classification), committing to purchase their grapes. This move provided a much-needed lifeline, offering growers a semblance of security and stability.

Fast forward to 1911, and France takes a decisive step by delineating the region surrounding the iconic Bordelais river, the Gironde. This newly demarcated area would boast a governing body overseeing grape cultivation across the Gironde department. And the culmination of these efforts? The establishment of the prestigious Bordeaux AOC in 1935.

 

The beginning of French wine law (brief timeline overview)...

Appellation d'Origine Protegée or AOP, AOC or just AC

The logo for Appellation d'Origine Protegée, a guarantee on French wine labels
AOP forms the basis of French Wine Law. This logo is a guarantee of quality and style.

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.

Summary...

 

Today, the illustrious wine regions of France—Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Beaujolais, Chablis, Côtes du Rhône, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Côte Rôtie, and the list goes on—stand as bastions of tradition, each boasting its own intricate web of wine laws. These regulations serve as a guarantee, ensuring that when you uncork a bottle of French wine, you’re not just savoring a libation but a meticulously crafted embodiment of quality and style, sanctioned by none other than the French government.
 

Yet, the genesis of these laws is anything but straightforward. France’s vinous narrative is a tapestry woven with threads of vine disease, grape scarcities, wine counterfeiting, and, yes, even bouts of fervent protest. It was amidst these tumultuous chapters that the seeds of regulation were sown, sprouting forth from the fertile grounds of Southern France (affectionately known as “le Midi”), Bordeaux, and Champagne. Within these hallowed terroirs, a cast of characters, each with their own role to play, converged to herald the dawn of French wine law and the birth of the revered Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system.

References

“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

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