This summer, Sancerre winemaker Jean-Jacques Auchere awoke one morning to find that almost 6,000 of his youngest IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) Sauvignon Blanc vines had been ripped out of the earth at his estate, The Cabarette. Auchere told reporters that the ransacking, believed to be the work of vandals, has cost him at least $13,000 in damages, not to mention the time and labor he’ll have to spend replanting his vines. Auchere and others in Loire are forced to decide whether growing IGP Sauvignon Blanc is worth the risk at all, even though they are in their legal right to plant these vines. The controversy comes down to the fear that winemakers will stop following government certification guidelines when making some of their wines, and that this will harm the reputation of those who do choose to follow the guidelines.
IGP vs. AOC
Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, is fiercely guarded in Sancerre because the region has a reputation for growing some of the finest Sauvignon Blanc in France. Sancerre has strict appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) guidelines, and most producers follow these guidelines to the letter because it increases the wine’s worth on the market. AOC wines usually cost more than the same non-AOC wines grown next door, even if they’re of similar quality. That’s because AOC wine guidelines regulate what kind of vines producers can plant, where they can be grown, how much they can grow, and how they can harvest grapes, all of which are designed to improve the wine and hold producers accountable for quality.
However, not all producers have to follow AOC wine guidelines. IGP wines don’t have to follow AOC rules, but as a result, they can’t be labeled as AOC. In terms of quality, they’re usually a step above table wine, but a step below their AOC peers. IGP wines are labeled “Vin de Pays,” or “country wines,” and are almost always cheaper than their AOC peers because they lack the same strict regulations. In Sancerre, producers are allowed to grow IGP grapes next to AOC grapes, as long as they label them correctly. For instance, if a winemaker grows both IGP and AOC Sauvignon Blanc in the same terroir, he has freedom to produce as much of the IGP as he wants and experiment with different blends, whereas he’s only allowed to produce a limited yield of AOC grapes, and they have to be blended according to the AOC rules.
Vandalism: A Symptom of a Larger Problem
The controversy comes from critics who believe that growing IGP grapes near AOC vines will taint the AOC’s reputation. They’re worried that too much under-regulated IGP Sauvignon Blanc in Loire will result in subpar wines, which will ruin Sancerre on the market. Vandals are exercising what they see as vigilante justice when they uproot IGP vines.
Some critics also claim that producers who grow IGP grapes close to AOC grapes might try to blend the two together, passing off IGP wine blends as AOC bottles. So far, this hasn’t been a proven problem in Sancerre. Quality winemakers like Henri Bourgeois and Joseph Mellot already grow AOC vines and IGP vines right next to each other without labeling problems. Wine blogger Jim Budd says he frequently drinks both types of wine from these estates, and that the producers have no interest in blending the two together. He says, “Are the protesters really suggesting that Henri Bourgeois and Joseph Mellot blend their IGP wines into their Sancerre or that they are even tempted to do so?!” It’s in the best interest of the winery to keep these labels separate, since any hint of AOC fraud could ruin their reputations.
How This Will Impact Your Loire Vintages
Vandalism affects more than just a handful of IGP producers in Loire; by removing country wines from some vineyards and potentially scaring off other winemakers who might be tempted to grow IGP grapes, Loire becomes less diverse and collectors have fewer options on the market. Part of the appeal of IGP wines is that you never know what to expect when you invest in them. For my own collection, I buy AOC vintages if I want a wine that I know will last in storage and be worth a great deal on the market, yet I also experiment with plenty of IGP vintages. On some occasions, I find an IGP wine that exceeds my expectations and that’s just as delicious as any AOC wine. With IGP wines, winemakers are free to express their own personal styles in the wine, which can make your cellar more interesting. For instance, AOC winemakers in Touraine can only make white blends that have less than 20 percent Chardonnay, but IGP winemakers are free to add as much or as little of other varietals as they’d like to a blend in order to experiment with less traditional proportions.
AOC Guidelines Both Help and Hurt Your Collection
AOC wine guidelines are by no means a bad thing. Collectors use AOC guidelines to quickly determine whether a bottle is worth investing in compared to others on the market. The general rule I follow is:
- If it’s AOC, it’s almost always worth the price
- If it’s IGP, you’ll need to do some extra research
- If it’s Vin de Table, it’s probably not worth buying unless you get it for a steal, or you want a good drinking wine
Having a simple, shorthand system for every wine you’re likely to run into in a wine shop is an ideal tool, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to shop. AOC regulations keep these wines up to a high standard, giving you some degree of confidence when buying any of these wines.
However, AOC guidelines can also result in boring wines and stubborn producers. When all winemakers are forced to blend their wines exactly the same way there’s little room for creativity or experimentation. This becomes a concern in the modern wine market because collectors are investing in more experimental regions like New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina. Collectors are developing more adventurous palates and are falling in love with unusual cult wines. IGP country wines have the potential to meet this need on the market where AOC can’t. Rather than uprooting IGP vines or preventing the sale of vineyards and estates to foreign investors, producers should protect the AOC guidelines they already have while encouraging those outside of the AOC to try new techniques. Embracing both AOC and IGP will only make France’s most lauded terroirs more successful.
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