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When losers become winners: How a bad appellation can make you a cult wine



When I was a working wine critic, people said I possessed a certain amount of power. Maybe so, but I never was in a position to dictate to a winery what appellation they were entitled to use on the label!

If I had been an official taster with the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, the French quasi-governmental agency that regulates the appellation contrôlée system, I would have had that right and that power. Which scares even me: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown! But that is the case in France, where the 2012 vintage of Pontet-Canet’s second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet, [was] refused AOC classification by an independent tasting panel. As a result, the wine will have to be bottled as a Vin de Table rather than a Pauillac,” according to the drinks business newsletter.

It seems ridiculous to put that much power in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, but that’s the French way. Besides, I wonder if the official tasters tasted the wine blind. (If any of you know, please tell me in the comments.) The drinks business article tried to discern why the tasters rejected the wine; the best they could surmise was that Pontet-Canet’s combination of biodynamic winegrowing and use of amphorae (a sort of “egg”) resulted in the wine’s lacking “Pauillac typicité,” whatever that means. Now, I don’t know the total number of wines that bore a Pauillac AOC in 2012, but it has got to be in the dozens if not hundreds, right? So how “different” could the Les Hauts have been (after all, it is from a respected Classified Growth), for the tasters to have rejected it? Was it the sole outlier in the entire commune? Perhaps the tasters knew what it was, and their personal attitudes toward biodynamics and amphorae shaped their perceptions.

It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for Pontet-Canet and its owners, the Tesseron family. In fact, the brouhaha may work in their favor. Melanie Tesseron told the drinks business that the wine “is becoming fast a collector’s item.” I don’t doubt it. Anomalies often do. The famous “upside down plane” stamp is a collector’s item.

upside down plane

In wine, pretty much the same thing happened when Piero Antinori launched Tignanello, in 1971; because he blended the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the Italian government wouldn’t let him label it Chianti Classico. He had to use the lowly “Toscana” appellation. But it didn’t exactly hurt Tignanello, which became a collector’s item.

Not that we’re in any danger of it, but I’d hate to see California turn into the kind of dictated winegrowing region that so much of Europe is, where you can only grow the grape varieties the government approves of, or else you have to lower the appellation. Can you imagine how that would work in Napa Valley, which, presumably, if we had strict typicity rules, would be limited to Bordeaux varieties? A vintner who blended in a little Syrah with the Cabernet (as B Cellars did in 2004, in their Blend 25) would be entitled only to North Coast, or possibly a California AVA. Under those circumstances, B Cellars might not even have bothered making the wine, which would have robbed the world of a beautiful 94-pointer.

I’m off to the beautiful Santa Maria Valley for the rest of the week, but will try to post tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to get some pretty good rain on Friday in Northern California, which is a very good thing!

  1. Steve,

    I’ve tasted enough amphora-made wines to say with a fair bit of certainty that the process substantially marks the wines’ organoleptic characters. I suspect that was the case here, and the tasters reacted negatively to the wine being so different from the others in the appellation.

    It’s a classic case of the wine lacking typicité and so not being approved, like past instances of Sancerres that have been denied that AOC for containing residual sugar.

    Normally at these sorts of tastings, the wines are identified by a number, not by producer.

    Safe travels!


  2. Bob Henry says:

    France ignores its winemaking history when it shuns amphorae-made wines.

    “Evidence of Earliest-Ever French Winemaking Found”



    “Wine was being made in France as early as the 5th Century BC, according to a new study of archaeological evidence found on the Mediterranean coast near Montpellier.

    “In a discovery described as ‘crucial’ to the history of winemaking, scientists say residues found in amphorae and a limestone wine press constitute the earliest biomolecular evidence yet found of winemaking by the Gauls.”

    Other press coverage on amphorae-made wines . . .

    “Coming Soon To A Wine Near You: Ancient Amphorae – Forbes”



    “But how do wines fermented in terra cotta amphorae taste any different than wines fermented in stainless steel or oak barrels? And is the labor-intensive process worth the effort? The wines seem to come together much sooner in the process than they do in steel or oak. There is also noticeably more earthiness and minerality. Which makes sense, given the nature of the material: the wine is actually being put into an earthen vessel for fermentation.”

    “New Wine in Really Old Bottles – New York Times”



    “It’s a technique that requires exquisite care in the vineyard. ‘You can’t correct the wine once it’s in the amphorae,’ [Italian winemaker] Mr. [Josh] Gravner said. ‘Whatever is good or bad will be amplified.'”

  3. From The Drinks Business periodical:



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