• Simon Reilly

The (vin de) French Revolution

An edited version of his article was originally published in Issue 21 of Root + Bone magazine.

Whilst the “in your (rich, elitist) face” rampage of the gilets jaunes through Paris has been front page news, another French revolution has been quietly building through the ranks of France’s winemakers.

To understand what has caused this ripple of discontent, one must look at the laws that govern the wine industry in France. The AOC (Appelation Origine Controlle) system, governed by the INAO (Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité) divides the wine-making regions of France into Appellations, geographical regions of varying scale, in a generally non-uniform manner, named after the local village. Within each AOC there are strict rules around how the wine is made; what a grapes can be used, how old the vines are, how long the wine is aged, where the wine is produced and bottled. I could go on...

For a producer to be allowed to label the wine as AOC, he or she must abide by the rules set by their local Appelation. Every last one of them. Failure to do so will result in the ultimate humiliation for any self-respecting traditional winemaker; labelling his or her prized juice as a humble vin de Franc (VDF). Traditionally winemakers have played by the rules, and the VDF label was reserved for cheap plonk. Used by commercially driven producers to flog wine they haven’t put much, if any, love and affection into making and just want to get shot of, sold like petrol by the litre at the side of the road.

But as another political activist once said “the times they are a changing”. New wine-making techniques have come to the fore; organics, biodynamics and low intervention are de rigeur. Today’s wine drinkers want to drink younger, fresher, unoaked wines. Climate change has meant many traditional varieties just don’t suit the climate of Appellations they once thrived in. Wine has moved on but the shackles of the old AOC rules remain.

This has led many of France’s most exciting winemakers to turn their back on the AOC system and produce wines of great quality under the VDF moniker. One of the most vocal proponents of the VDF in recent years is Jura based winemaker Jean-François Ganevat. He took over his family estate in 1998, but it was in 2014 when his VDF obsession really took off. After a run of short vintages on his own estate he decided to create a negociant label with his sister, Anne, and started buying in fruit from all over France. And so the experimentation began; “In working with a number of different grape varieties I find it really invigorating to make different styles of wines, often I put together several grape varieties from different regions.” He now creates a plethora of complicated cuvees with grapes mixed from all over France.

But it is not just the lack of fruit that has turned Ganevat to the freedom of the VDF, but a frustration with the old guard of the INAO; “ it is often difficult for people to understand 'living' wines and to obtain an appellation controlles. People are still set in their ways. Even if things are evolving, there is still some way to go.”

He is not alone in feeling this frustration. Over in the Loire Valley, Alexandre Bain was refused the Pouilly-Fumé AOC, he claims because of his use of natural wine making techniques. He now states this clearly on the bottle labels, taking a stand against the authorities on behalf of artisanal winemakers.

Jacky Blot of Domaine De La Taille aux Loups, a producer of world class Chenin Blanc in Montlouis and Vouvray (neighbouring villages in the Loire Valley) has also run into trouble with the AOC ruling body INAO. His winery in Montlouis is a short hop across the river from the Clos de la Venise vineyard in Vouvray that produces the fruit for his Venis, VDF but because it is vinified and bottles in Montlouis and not Vouvray, he must label it VDF.

Despite its undoubtedly good intentions, stories like this merely highlight the growing irrelevance of the AOC system. Unless it can remain current, we are likely to see the VDF label in use more and more.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité!

Intrigued? Try these rebels;

Jean-François et Ann Ganevat, Cuvée Madelon VDF (2016)

Reductive nose of burnt rubber but what lies beneath is quite beautiful. Sweet cherry and strawberry fruit flavours wash over stalky, earthy mint leaves, finishing with a lovely fresh acidity. A really delicious macerated fruit-like drink.

£31, Blast Vintners

Domaine Rietsch, Tout Blanc au Litre VDF

A blend of Sylvaner, Riesling, Auxerrois and Gewürztraminer from the 2015, 2016 and 2017 vintages, this tastes like a bowl of posh citrus fruits. It is pithy in texture and there is a plethora of orange, grapefruit and lemon notes, from sweet to sour and everything in between. All this and it comes in a litre bottle too.

£21.90, Wines Under the Bonnet, 161 Food and Drink