A name that will live in infamy

by Daniel on August 1, 2004

Herve Gaymard. Remember the name of this philistine, moron, horrific Gaullist placeman and all-around fils de putain. I suspect that if the revolution comes and some semblance of humanity, civilisation and decency is restored to the moral cesspool that we see around us, your grandchildren will be encouraged to ceremonially burn him in effigy once a year, on a ritual fire made of oak chips. You might also want to make a note of the name of Denis Verdier, who revisionist historians of fify years’ hence may even suggest deserves more of the blame than the hated Gaymard.

What am I going on about? Well click the link above and have a look. Gaymard is signing up to a set of proposals put together by venal, subsidy-hungry, crass winemakers’ associations which would have two main effects:

  • French vins de pays would be labelled with their grape variety
  • The use of oak chips as a flavouring agent would be legalised in France

Of the second of these points, I am not going to say anything; the enormity of this crime against gastronomy is hopefully so great that nothing needs to be said. I will only mention that previously to the loi Gaymard (as I am calling it), France was basically the last major wine-producing country on earth where this barbarism was prohibited.

Of the first, however, perhaps a little needs to be said. Obviously, sophisticates like me and Cathy Seipp understand the issue here, but I must always remember that there are philistines and barbarians who also read Crooked Timber, as well as a couple of actual Australians, so perhaps some short discursus is in order.

Wine is the expression of a place, not of a grape. This is a fundamental truth of winemaking and no amount of oak chips can make it otherwise. The same Chardonnay grape which Ernst and Julio Gallo squeeze by the bushel to produce lakes of insipid ABC rubbish, is the grape which is the backbone of flint-dry Chablis. Some of the finest Champagne in the world is made from Pinot Meunier, a grape which, grown outside a small corner of France and a small corner of NorthWest America, is not fit for making Welch’s Grape Soda. The factors which determine what a wine will taste like are, in order of importance, climate, soil, water and only then, grape variety. It is true that the very best wines are made year to year with the same grapes, but that is because of careful selection of the vines to match the teroir, not the other way round.

So why then do all other countries’ wines put the grape variety on the label? To put it bluntly, ignorance and snobbery. Back in the days before the marketing industry dreamt up the grape variety labelling wheeze, there were only three ways to know if the wine that you were ordering with your lunch was good or bad:

1) Spend years and years learning a huge amount about wine regions and classifications,


2) Discuss the matter with a wine waiter employed by the restaurant for that purpose,


3) Actually bloody taste the thing and make your mind up whether you like it or not.

The first is inconvenient and expensive, the second involves social awkwardness and the third requires independent thought. So obviously, this was not ever going to be a seller in the big export markets of the USA and UK. So, with their never failing blend of entrepreneurial can-do spirit and utter, horrendous crassness, the Yanks and Aussies came up with a fourth alternative:

4) Learn the names of four grape varieties (Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz and Riesling), look on the label for one of them then order the wine with confidence, proclaiming loudly to your fellow diners that you are a man of taste who knows what he likes and to yourself that all Chardonnays taste buttery, Syrahs taste of blackberries and so on, despite the evidence of your own fucking nose and tastebuds screaming the contrary.

It worked a treat, obviously, although some would have thought that the provision of incontrovertible evidence to other planets that the human race does not deserve to exist, was perhaps a bit of a high price to pay for commercial success.

I thought that the French, that most civilised nation, were going to hold the line on this one and insist with the stubbornness for which they are famous that two plus two equals four, it gets dark when the sun goes down and that “Chardonnay” is not a meaningful category of wine. And indeed they did hold the line, except it was a bloody Maginot Line. Bastards. Is there any hope at all for the world?

For the time being, it will still be possible to have an intelligent conversation about French wine. Since the new labelling standards only apply to vins de pays, and since French vin de pays is almost always undrinkable anyway, I think that the safest thing to do with French wine with a varietal label, for a couple of years at least, is to pour it down the drain or give it to Cathy Seipp’s servants. But let’s not kid ourselves; the thin end of the wedge is in the door. It won’t be long before we see bottles of “St Emilion Cabernet Merlot”, or (vomit, shudder) novelty “Sancerre Gewurtztraminer”. All flavoured with the Great Taste of Sawdust, natch. (and what the hell, why not a bit of artificial vanilla flavour too, once the principle has been conceded!)

I note in conclusion that the hated Gaymard is a native of the Savoie region. Savoie makes very few good wines and exports even fewer (if you want good wine from that part of the world, you generally buy Jura). It’s also a wine-producing region with a teroir surprisingly similar to that of New Zealand, which makes its wines from a selection of weird and wonderful obscure grape varieties not planted elsewhere in the world. And they’re not very good. Talk about … sour grapes.



John Quiggin 08.01.04 at 12:45 am

The history you’ve given here is rather misleading, DD. Until a couple of decades ago, Australian wines were labelled by style – claret, burgundy, hock and so on [and until a decade or so before that, most of them were pretty dire]. Most of these names were ultimately derived from European place names, and the EU forced the Oz producers to stop using them.

The choice was then to set up from scratch an imitation of the French system of controlled appellations, or to label wines by the grapes that went into them.

The second was the obviously sensible choice, and worked sufficiently well that most Australian wine drinkers either don’t recognise the French place-based labels at all, or at least have to do a mental translation, from, say, Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon. I imagine the same is true for Americans*.

The result, I expect is that the French are finding that their monopoly on place-based names is actually hurting them in export markets, particularly at the lower end where this proposal is aimed.

* Perhaps less so, since, except at the very top end of the market, Australian wine is better and cheaper than the French competition. In my experience, this is not true of the US.


dsquared 08.01.04 at 12:57 am

I’m sure it was hurting them, but I thought that the French of all people would see that there was a vital issue of principle.

It is actually possible to drag a vague idea of geographical provenance out of decent bottles of Australian and NZ wine these days, particularly since some Australian winemakers (as you say, at the upper end) have stopped making wines that all taste the same.


dsquared 08.01.04 at 1:05 am

or at least have to do a mental translation, from, say, Bordeaux to Cabernet Sauvignon

Please tell me that this was a joke intended to wind me up on purpose. I’m crying real tears here (although I suppose that could be because I’m drunk).


dsquared 08.01.04 at 1:32 am

Actually, in the interests of truth, I probably ought to point out to CT readers who aren’t familiar either with the “AOC wars” of the 1980s or my terrible habit of baiting Antipodeans for the hell of it, that John is right on the history of the varietal nomenclature in Australia. The USA, however, has no excuse for this; the Californians were well on their way to developing a sensible AOC structure when they decided to jump on the bandwagon. I maintain that my explanation of why it was that the varietal nomenclature caught on is the true one, however.


Frank Wilhoit 08.01.04 at 2:05 am

Oak chips? YUM. I snack on them all afternoon. My colleagues fling up a hand at my approach, to ward off splinters. I smell like newly-minted kitchen cabinets. Do you really mean there is wine without them? Because I wouldn’t notice if there were.

Anyhow, if you are prepared to recommend comprehensive measures to protect the French wine industry from all global competition, then well and fine; otherwise you are somewhat lacking in seriousness.


John Quiggin 08.01.04 at 2:15 am

We may be ignorant, but we’re ‘appy!


Russell Arben Fox 08.01.04 at 2:26 am

“Wine is the expression of a place, not of a grape.”

“Place”? There are no “places” left, my friend. It’s the new borderless world, where goods and people and ideas travel freely from one market to another, thus becoming both indistinguishable and cheap, empowering individual choice. You’ve read your Friedman, right? Excellent, now slug down that grapeshot (only $2 a bottle, what a steal!) and get back to work; there’s a load of shoes coming in from Thailand that need their logos sewed on.


Phill 08.01.04 at 3:46 am

The French wine industry has been in crisis for a long long time. Some of the regulations governing the industry do help maintain quality, but most are just plain daft like the rules governing what grapes can be grown where. These were decided in the days of Napoleon and cannot be changed. So even though the soils and the grapes have changes as have tastes and the knowledge of what grapes grow best in what soil nothing can change.

The rules are not just there to keep quality up, the owners of the upper market vineyards hardly want competition from the riff raff. So insisting on antique methods of production is in large part a matter of protective practices.

As for the oak chips, wine has for centuries been aged in oak barrels. I don’t know about you but it hardly seems likely that it makes a great deal of difference if the wine aquires an oak flavor from being in an actual oak barrel or from being in a stainless steel barrel with oak chips in it. Nor if there is indeed a difference that it would automatically and by necessity result in a worse tasting product.

Now you may like to sip your glass of claret and think smuggly to yourself about French pesants toiling in the sun all day to earn an honest days subsidy. I would much prefer the job done by machines, the peasants laid off and the subsidy ended.


Barry Freed 08.01.04 at 4:16 am

I couldn’t help but wonder if lumping Aurtralians in with philistines and barbarians in a vinicultural context wasn’t somehow an oblique reference to that old Monty Python bit mocking the very notion of “Australin wines”. It included the very un-PC line (quoting from memory): “…Chateau Wallla Walla Walla. Which has the bouquet of an Aborigine’s armpit and a kick like a mule.”


Barry Freed 08.01.04 at 4:17 am

I couldn’t help but wonder if lumping Aurtralians in with philistines and barbarians in a vinicultural context wasn’t somehow an oblique reference to that old Monty Python bit mocking the very notion of “Australin wines”. It included the very un-PC line (quoting from memory): “…Chateau Wallla Walla Walla. Which has the bouquet of an Aborigine’s armpit and a kick like a mule.”


wcw 08.01.04 at 4:43 am

What’s wrong with New Zealand?

Some of those Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs really are all that. Yeah, a lot of them are just sour and weird, but the best of them (the Omaka Springs from a year or so back, and on the cheaper tip Stoneleigh most years) are sour and great.

That said, I love sour tastes.


wcw 08.01.04 at 4:46 am

Oh, heck — and there was that one Isabel that was great, too. Don’t fuck with NZ — when occasionally they make good wines, they’re often cheap. Last time I had a great Frog wine, it cost me $50 to get another bottle. The most I’ve ever paid for an NZ Marlborough is $15, often much less.


Marco 08.01.04 at 5:46 am

As an ig’nant Australian, might I point out that the word is spelled terroir?

*beetles off to drink Coonawarra shaz*


Andrew Boucher 08.01.04 at 6:24 am

Of course not all French wines will choose to use oak chips – allowing does not mean forcing. On the other hand if you don’t want to make the effort to learn the wines themselves – how each one tastes – or if you can’t taste the difference anyway but want to pretend otherwise, then yeah you could have a problem with the new rules.


bad Jim 08.01.04 at 6:44 am

California barely labels its wines in varietal fashion. 50% makes it Cabernet. Our upscale wines are labeled at least by county, at best by valley. We are in the process of institutionalizing terroirism.

Moreover, lately we find Bordeaux wines marketed by grape variety. “Merlot” may seem a safer choice than “Bergerac”; perhaps wines so labeled are fashioned to be more pleasing to Californian palates.

I’ve never heard of the use of oak chips before, though. Mesquite chips for barbecues, sure.


Scott Martens 08.01.04 at 8:46 am

As I understand it, the logic behind this is more along the line of the French government deciding that the vin de pays class of wines needs to compete with the South Africans and the Chileans. The AOC wines remain just as strict.

I think you’re right to view this as a bad idea, but on different grounds. Philistinism has never been in short supply anywhere in French government. Instead, I think it’s just plain dumb for French wine to try to compete with countries with low standards and lower labour costs. It’s simply economically inefficient to throw away a reputation for being picky about wines and try to compete on a cost per litre basis with places like South Africa. France can’t ever win on that basis. Better to cut back wine production in the low cost categories and turn the cheaper vinyards into nature preserves than to be seen to lower standards.

There is a lot of cheap French wine out there, and I can’t see any real logic in it existing. The local Chinese takeout where I work sends a free bottle of “Chateau Ming-Tien” with orders over 60 euros. It’s cheap generic French wine in a generic bottle with a house label on it. If that business went over the South Africans, I can’t see how that would be the end of the world.


rc 08.01.04 at 10:45 am

1. AOC wines from Alsace carry varietal designations.

2. A Bourgogne made from gamay is a very different thing than one made from pinot noir, so it could be a good thing to know both.

3. The AOC classification is a statement about the dirt, not the origins of the stock. This is fair and reasonable, and one sees this even more in the cheese than in the wine–the French do not appear to care what sub-species of cow (or goat or sheep) produced the milk. They do appear eager to know the provenance of nearly everything else: in my local supermarket, all the fruits and vegetables are labeled by their country of origin. When the papers refer to “the man from Correze,” everyone knows they’re talking about Chirac. There is some ambiguity in that “The Texan” can mean either George W. or Lance Armstrong, though only one of those two was actually born in Texas. A friend is trying to create an AOC for the Black Gascon pig, with a standard that the pig spend its entire life, and a majority of its feed be grown, in Gascony. Clearly, then, the French appear to think that the dirt, and the air, and the water of a place are determinant, not the stock from which a thing springs.

So perhaps you can understand why French racism puzzles me, particularly when the object of discrimination was born in France.


John Quiggin 08.01.04 at 12:06 pm

Of course, we in Australia have terroir too, it’s just more productive. Jacob’s Creek, a tiny rivulet in the Barossa Valley, produced 36 million bottles of wine last year. At least that’s what Pernod Ricard, who own the brand, tell us.


Superskepticalman 08.01.04 at 1:14 pm

I’m just waiting for “Thunderbird” to become its own “meaningful catagory.”

I know my taste buds are quivering with anticipation!


Phill 08.01.04 at 3:26 pm

Its is interesting to see people equating ‘quality’ with ‘traditional’. Making your wine in stainless steel vats and using oak chips is a much more repeatable process than the traditional oak barrels scheme.

The average French vin de pays tastes even worse than Beujolais Neuvaux which in turn compares unfavorably to australian or californian mass market wines. If you are drinking that type of stuff you don’t care about quality. Getting outraged over this is like getting outraged over Skoda introducing electric windows.


Kieran Healy 08.01.04 at 3:39 pm

Mary Douglas has a discussion on the shift in the wine classification system at the back of How Institutions Think:

bq. _The World Atlas of Wines_ (Johnson 1981) which uses place so well for explaining French wines, is as irrelevant to the Californian scene as Savary’s dictionary of commerce was for describing French textiles in the ninteenth century postrevolutionary structure, and for the same reasons. Large-scale industrial processes are their own institutions. They cannot be embedded in the patterns of local community control.

bq. This is how the names get changed and how the people are rejigged to fit the new categories. First, the people are tempted out of their niches by new possibilities of exercising or evading control. Then they make new kinds of institutions, and the institutions make new labels, and the label makes new kinds of people.

For ‘new possibilities’ read ‘oak chips’ and fill in the rest yourself.


eudoxis 08.01.04 at 4:43 pm

“and what the hell, why not a bit of artificial vanilla flavour too, once the principle has been conceded!”

This struck me as humorous because artificial vanilla, or vanillin, is derived from oak lignin. The vanilla flavor in wine is indeed artificial vanilla.

Imparting flavor from oak is best accomplished with a high surface to area ratio. Oak chips are most effective. The permeability of oak is harder to duplicate, but air or oxygen can be supplied to steel tanks.

I wonder if the old growth oak forests of Limousin are a sustainable resource?


mc 08.01.04 at 5:16 pm

“Since the new labelling standards only apply to vins de pays, and since French vin de pays is almost always undrinkable anyway”

There you go. So what’s the problem? just don’t drink undrinkable wine if you’re such a wine lover. Easy. Drink and let drink :)

Also, it’s not exactly true that all other countries label by varietal. All wines worth their names do carry an indication of origin. Be it protected or not. You usually get both varietal and origin to identify a wine. In Europe it’s always been geographic identification that matters most. With wines from other parts of the world too, if they’re any good, it’s the same. What self-respecting wine wouldn’t want you to know where it’s from?

I’m not sure I understand what this proposal changes in that respect, would it make it totally optional to identify origin? I don’t believe that’s even possible within the EU. But if it were, it only applies to the cheaper wines, who are certainly not targeted to people who care about quality and origin, so, the purist outrage seems misplaced.


Jay Conner 08.01.04 at 7:31 pm

Deny a winemaker his oak chips ? Deny a chef his spice rack. A winemaker since ’68, I prize my collection, of French, American, Hungarian, Slovenian oak, in varying contours and granulations, as well as the cherry, pear, chestnut, cedar and juniper. A comparable collection of barrels would be impossible and unnecessary, and if, as I suspect, you value subtlety, ask not excessive questions as to the source of your sausage.

Wine is the expression of a place, a grape, a season, a rainfall, an art, a science. a degree of care and adherence and evasion of regulations. Wine is the history of a year, and the record of a fermentation. I doesn’t cram into your little square boxes. Let it be.

That old French miasmal mist is not eternal verity. C’est la merde ancienne.


Brautigan 08.01.04 at 7:46 pm

I would much prefer the job done by machines, the peasants laid off and the subsidy ended.

Go take a prozac.


dsquared 08.01.04 at 7:49 pm

For lovers of trivia, I’d add that “Cava” is actually an AOC for Spanish sparkling wine. Due to some horrendous EU labelling cock-up, the only way that the Spanish could protect their local product was to create a strange variegated, gerrymandered geographical “region” which included everywhere in Spain that happened to produce sparkling wine by the cava method.

I’d certainly agree that Australia produces a number of perfectly drinkable wines and NZ some actually very good ones (US wines, I’ve always been less than impressed with). But la France has to be considered the gold standard.


nick 08.01.04 at 8:17 pm

it hardly seems likely that it makes a great deal of difference if the wine aquires an oak flavor from being in an actual oak barrel or from being in a stainless steel barrel with oak chips in it.

Ah, yes. The Sunny Delight argument.

I’m not as much of a terroiriste as dsquared, but I do note that the wail of grief lasted days when I learned that the small scrubby field of mongrel grapes used by Sean Thackray for his astonishing ‘Rhone’ varietals had been dug up and replanted with Muuuuuuurloh.

And good French wine is usually better than Australian at any price point over around £15/bottle, but it’s maddeningly inconsistent until you get to silly price points.


Richard Bellamy 08.01.04 at 8:52 pm

While the locale may be more important than the grape variety, those who understand the health benefits prefer the “Cabernet Sauvignon” no matter what part of the world it comes from.


cleek 08.01.04 at 10:43 pm

i admit ignorance of the subtleties of France’s wine laws, but, i was just in the store buying some wine and noticed shelves and shelves of George de Boeuf all produly displaying their varietals. what am i missing here?


HP 08.02.04 at 3:26 am

You know, when the subject is oak barrels versus oak chips, I’m reminded how lucky I am that my home for the last eight years is just across the river from the Bourbon region…of Kentucky.


ChrisPer 08.02.04 at 6:42 am

I don’t care if you call Australians philistines. If fewer foreigners condescend to drink our wines, the good stuff is easier to buy.

And my pick of Monty Python wines is the Melbourne Old and Yellow – a good fighting wine.

As for French wines… no doubt there are ordinary, good and great ones but why would I care how they are labelled? I can’t afford them.


doghouse riley 08.02.04 at 6:54 am

the USA, however, has no excuse for this; the Californians were well on their way to developing a sensible AOC structure when they decided to jump on the bandwagon

Sorry if I’ve misunderstood you, but varietal labeling in California dates to the 1930s and 40s and the work of wine writer Frank Schoonmaker. The best California wines were always varietally labeled, and after the famous–or infamous–Paris tasting of 1975, variety became an aesthetic. I remember shopping for 1978 Beaulieu Georges de la Tour and being told it was “100% Cabernet!”

The AVA system has nothing to do with teroir and everything to do with creating exclusive marketing niches. Add that to an archaic system wherein every state controls alcoholic beverage sales within its borders, and a national character which for some reason empowers three or four publications to grant every wine in the world a numerical score on a 100-point scale, and somehow, within a decade, every damn wine in the world began to taste the same. And California, which used to make some good $6 wines, now makes a bunch of overwrought $6 wines, aimed at people who think wine is supposed to taste like oak or blackcurrants or pepper, and they all cost $40.


informant 08.02.04 at 8:15 am

Cigarettes used to be marketed avidly on the qualities of their taste. After three good sips wine is not about taste, it’s about what it does to your brain. The conceit is Puritan residue.
Good wine does good things to the brain, bad does bad, and great wine does great things to the mind and the soul, and the heart.
The next day’s a good qualifier as well. Great wines don’t poison.

A valiant defense of something which, like language, we allow the diminuition of at our peril. There is a spirit now among us that would have our moral stance founded in the laboratories, our needs itemized by the minimal standards set when they’re not met.
Great wine is not a matter of preference, it is great wine, it will be great wine if there is not one human being left who can recognize it; and like great poetry its cultivation and preservation are not consumer choices. Their defense is the responsibility of those vouchsafed the knowledge and the palate to discern them.


Tracy 08.02.04 at 9:21 am

As one of those horribly uninformed vulgar people, who grew up in NZ, I prefer a grape varietal system to the incredibly confusing French one. Of your 3 ways of ordering wine, I have other things to do with my time than become a grape tasting expert, I don’t eat at the sort of restaurant that hires well-informed wine waiters, and I don’t have enough money to buy bottles of wine randomly in the hope that some of them turn out to be the sort I like.

An attitude that a NZ sauvigon blanc is probably going to be a pretty good drink has stood me in pretty good stead, though I learnt my lesson about grape varities varying after getting overly excited on tasting my first couple of pinot gris and then having several let-downs. And then I recognise several varities and years that tend to be very good (anything by Nautiulis, Kim Crawford 2002 Unoaked Chardonnay [which totally put me off oaked ones], etc, etc.)

What sort of basic rule can you apply to French wines to start making sense of them, and being reasonably confident of getting a wine you like, without having to memorise the whole system?


Phomesy 08.02.04 at 12:27 pm

Do people outside France really still drink that nation’s swill?


Anthony 08.02.04 at 6:49 pm

I never drink French swill. Even the name is off-putting. But I don’t mind French wine.


dsquared 08.02.04 at 11:28 pm

Tracy raises a decent issue here; there is of course an element of pure snobbery in my post, but what the hey. The only practical solution that I’ve found is that I only ever eat in the same two or three restaurants, so I more or less know their wine lists off by heart.


MQ 08.03.04 at 12:28 am

Oak chips are already legal in vin de pays, have been for a while. They are just illegal in the AOC wines. And vin de pays are often labelled by varietal as well. What am I missing here?


David Salmanson 08.03.04 at 4:31 pm

For whatever reasons, oak chips impart a completely different flavor than oak barrels. The former makes a wine taste like wood, the latter gives some wines a flavor akin to that of (God help me) a Good Humor Toasted Almond ice cream bar. A good resource on cheap eminantly drinkable French Wine is http://www.moorebrothers.com. I have enjoyed many awesome under $10 bottles of French, Italian, and German wine courtesy of these guys.
Re: varietal labelling. I’m for it. If I’m drinking Australian Red, I want Shiraz as the base. The mass-produced Australian Red Shirazes and blends are all pretty solid. But Australian merlot? blech. We do lose something when we fetishize the grape. Blends can rock your world and give the winemaker back some control that weather can mess up.


phersu 08.03.04 at 10:59 pm

Actually, the real problem with Gaymard is not this so-called “Crime Against Oenology”.

He is also known as a Pro-Life Conservative and may be a future leader of the UMP (the main right-wing party)…


David Moles 08.03.04 at 11:52 pm

(3) Actually bloody taste the thing and make your mind up whether you like it or not is all very well if you have a limited selection and don’t travel much — personally, as a Northern California resident transplanted to the Pacific Northwest, I’m fond of some reds from Dry Creek Valley, the Rogue River, and the Columbia Gorge.

But once you get outside what you’ve had the opportunity to taste personally and have to (gasp!) go into a wine shop and buy a strange bottle, you’re screwed. I’m sure when I was in grad school in England a few years ago I had an unparalleled opportunity to finally develop some familiarity with French and Italian wines. Since it would also have been an unparalleled opportunity to go broke even faster than I already was, I passed it up — and mostly drank Australian, since at least I knew a few of the winemakers and could get a vague idea from the labels of what the stuff might taste like.

I’m not saying I’m in favor of what M. Gaymard is proposing — he should probably be shot on the basis of the oak chips alone — but that’s what the French winemakers are up against. What should they be doing?

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