iDealwine update: Defiantly different

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11th December, 2019 by Angélique de Lencquesaing

A growing number of ‘free-spirited’ winemakers are choosing to forego appellations to produce Vin de France releases, which grant greater freedom of expression. These non-conformist wines are proving increasingly popular at auction.

FRANCE’S NATIONAL Institute of Appellations of Origin (INAO), the body that oversees AOC regulations, was created in 1935, initially as a way of protecting France’s best wines in a context of phylloxera-induced problems and counterfeit labels. In an effort to promote qualitative wines – raising quality standards and protecting consumers – AOCs, appellations of origin, were introduced, taking into account regional specificities, and codifying rules for production. An appellation’s cahier des charges (specifications) thus dictates significant elements of winemaking, from viticulture to vinification.

While serving as a key reference point for consumers, the INAO has found itself in a contradictory position, and is no stranger to criticism. The INAO has been accused of standardising wine, or limiting individual producers’ creativity, ‘downgrading’ wines that don’t fit into its categories to Vin de France status. Formerly called Vin de Table – the term was replaced in August 2009 – Vins de France have traditionally been regarded as the least prestigious in labelling hierarchy. For some, however, producing wines without an appellation is the ultimate expression of freedom, so, throughout France, producers are turning their backs to these constraints, producing Vins de France so they can experiment with new blends or techniques, or re-establish forgotten grape varieties.

To a certain extent, there is a precursor to this phenomenon. In the 1980s, Languedoc domaine Mas de Daumas Gassac’s vinification methods and decision to include a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend earned it the Vin de Table de France label. This didn’t stop the wine from gaining worldwide recognition, following reviews lauding it as the ‘Lafite of the Languedoc’. Over the years, many more examples of producers refusing to be governed by the dictates of appellations have emerged. In Provence, Eloi Dürrbach, of Domaine de Trévallon, includes equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in his cuvées, a decision that has resulted in the INAO refusing to approve his wine as AOC Baux de Provence. Another figure from Baux-de-Provence, Henri Milan – a self-proclaimed “right-wing anarchist” – broke away from the AOC in 2007 to retain the freedom to produce the wines he wanted to make.

Côte-Rôtie natural wine producer Jean-Michel Stephan’s cuvée, Vin sans Origine (wine without origin), is a tongue-incheek expression of its Vin de France status, while in the Southern Rhône, Jerôme Bressy of Gourt de Mautens has been labelling his wines as Vins de France since 2012. Having reintroduced traditional grape varieties that had almost disappeared from Rasteau, and are not accepted in the cahier des charges, he relinquished his right to AOC status. And recently it was reported that flagship producer Louis-Benjamin Dagueneau will be releasing his 2017 vintage as a Vin de France, as it was refused Pouilly-Fumé appellation status.

The Loire Valley – a hub for natural winemakers – boasts a group of such ‘rebel’ producers, of which Stéphane Bernadeau and Richard Leroy are the most emblematic. Leroy used to produce sweet white wines under the Rablay-sur-Layon appellation, and dry wines under the Anjou appellation, but following serious disagreements with the INAO, his cuvées were reclassified under the Vin de France label. This did nothing to temper oenophiles’ enthusiasm, manifest in auctions of recent months. iDealwine is increasingly seeing Leroy’s Vin de France Les Noëls de Montbenault at auction, the 2016 frequently brushing the €150 (£134) mark. All of the domain’s cuvées consistently sell for over €100, and price estimates are rising.

Similarly, the buzz surrounding Stéphane Bernaudeau shows no signs of slowing. He produces top-drawer Chenins from his two hectares of vines in Anjou. One of his iconic cuvées, Les Nourrissons 2015 sold for €146 this May. Older vintages are even more sought after, with the 2012 vintage consistently crossing the €200 threshold, having tripled in value in the past two years. Both producers offer some of the finest expressions of the Chenin grape around.

2018 also saw the meteoric rise of Domaine des Miroirs, founded in 2011 by the talented and avant-garde Japanese natural winemaker Kenjiro Kagami. This Jura domain is a stone’s throw from regional master Jean-François Ganevat. With a mere 4.2ha of very steep slopes on limestone soils, Kagami produces only 7,000 bottles a year, with 80% of his output exported to Japan and only 100 or so bottles made for the French market. iDealwine has recently seen these wines explode onto the auction market. The domain’s Vin de France Ja Nai 2011 was won by a Hong Kong wine lover for €693, up 536% on its estimate. In the 2012 vintage, the same cuvée sold for €565.

This phenomenon is not without risks to consumers: while it is certainly making waves in the French wine world, a wedge is being driven between this kind of highly exclusive, new wave grand cru and all other lesser-known vineyards. Nevertheless, these artisan producers are united by their natural methods of winemaking, high-quality output, negligible production levels and disruptive channels of distribution. These are elements that when combined, make the wines nigh-on impossible to access on the primary market, and fuel soaring prices through secondary channels. Watch this space.

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