What's the value of creating a new appellation?

Friday, 1. December 2017 - 12:15

Burgundy region by Victor Grigas/Wikimedia

Another day; another freshly-minted appellation. This time, it’s Bourgogne Côte d’Or, the new designation for wines produced exclusively within the most hallowed bit of Burgundy, from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.

It comes as the latest addition to a glorious muddle of more or less broad Burgundian AOPs that already included Bourgogne; Coteaux Bourguignons; Côte de Beaune Villages; Hautes Côtes de Beaune; Côte de Nuits Villages and Hautes Côtes de Nuits. In addition to these, of course, there are the dozens of officially recognised villages and vineyards, ranging from the ones such as Nuits St Georges and Gevrey Chambertin and Romanée-Conti that even the most casual wine drinker has probably heard of, to such arcane efforts as St Romain and Bourgogne le Chapitre.

The best explanation for Bourgogne Côte d’Or is that it’s really part of the same tidying-up process as the transition, in 2011, of the gloriously badly named Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire and Bourgogne Ordinaire to Coteaux Bourguignons.

The existing Bourgogne/Burgundy appellation is quite vague about where the grapes from which it is made are actually grown – covering, as it does,  an area stretching from the northern region of Chablis to the southern one of the Mâconnais. It is also less than clear about the variety/ies used. Surprisingly, up to 15% of the red can be Gamay, provided it is from Cru Beaujolais vineyards. All of which means that, in theory at least, a wine bearing the new appellation should be better than one sold as Burgundy.

After spending nearly six years living in Beaune and close to Pommard, I am probably rather more interested in these initiatives than the average wine drinker, but I’m still struggling to stifle a yawn. The one thing all Burgundy enthusiasts know, after all, is that when it comes to choosing a bottle, the appellation comes a firm second. Most of us would probably have preferred to buy a Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire from Leroy than a Clos Vougeot from a negociant we’d never heard of. Similarly, given the choice between a Mâconnais white produced by Lafon, and a supermarket own-label Puligny Montrachet, I’d unhesitatingly opt for the former. Is the existence of Bourgogne Côte d’Or going to change my (drinking) life? I doubt it.

But, I realise that my approach is not that common. Most casual buyers will always quite reasonably go for a village name of which they’ve heard – Gevrey Chambertin or Nuits St Georges for example – in the way a New World shopper might reach for a familiar grape variety or a brand.

So, how will the new appellation work for them? I guess that it may have some resonance in France, where the Côte d’Or is a geographical region through which many Parisians will have passed on their way to spend August in the south. Whether it will strike any kind of chord in other countries is a lot less certain

To be successful beyond France and possibly Belgium, the Côte d’Or appellation will have to have critical mass. This will presumably by achieved by it subsuming not only the Bourgogne Rouge and Blanc produced within its borders, but also at least some of the wines currently being produced in the 1,400ha of the little-known appellations of Hautes Côtes de Beaune and Hautes Côtes de Nuits. Perhaps some wines currently being sold as Côte de Beaune Villages and Côte de Nuits Villages will also end up in Côte d’Or bottles, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The essential problem is that, in the eyes of the consumer, appellations are brands, with all of the potential and the challenges that implies. For every success story like Napa and Priorat, there’s a long list of designated regions whose reputations barely extend beyond their own frontiers.

Unlike appellations, real commercial brands have brand managers, promotional budgets and sales targets – and owners who have the power to dispose of them, or close them down if they fail to justify their existence. Between 1999 and 2003, for example, Unilever slashed 850 of its brands, reducing its range from 1,600 brands to 750.  

In Burgundy, the approximate equivalent of the brand owner is the negociant, who has the choice of which appellations they want to sell. I say ‘approximate’ because they effectively share ownership of each appellation’s name with their competitors. It takes a lot more than one producer to create and maintain the reputation of a wine region.   

If enough labels bearing the words ‘Côte d’Or’, as well as the names of Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin or Bouchard Aîné, for example, appear on enough retail shelves and restaurant lists, it may prove to be a commercial success. If not, the appellation will simply become another name in a long list that can only ever be recited by wine geeks and Master of Wine students

For what it’s worth, if I were a Burgundy grower or merchant, irrespective of whether I could find a commercial rationale for exploiting the new AOP, I’d be tempted to follow the proprietary example set by Drouhin with its Laforet Bourgogne Rouge. Other producers can and will produce Bourgogne Côte d’Or wines of varying quality; no one else can sell a Laforet.
Robert Joseph