Over the past couple of years, a dispute has been raging between two very small French appellations – Bugey and Clairette de Die. In some ways this story sums up all that is mystifying about the legal intricacies of the French appellation system, in other ways it simply smacks of protectionism. And then, despite the small size of these regions in world terms, there’s a David and Goliath side to the story, too.
Through the ongoing dispute, which has concerned two regions I’ve been closely involved with recently in preparation for my new book Wines of the French Alps, my personal sympathies have wavered between the two regions, trying to be even-handed, but increasingly failing.
Two fizzes at opposing ends of the French Alps
Let me set the scene: there are just four French AOCs allowed to make sparkling wine in the Méthode Ancestrale (ancestral method) and label the wines as such – they are Clairette de Die, Limoux, Gaillac and Bugey-Cerdon. The method that is touted as being ancient (hence, ancestral) is actually only possible commercially due to the 20th century technologies of refrigeration and filtration. In brief, the method involves a single fermentation, which starts in the tank, and is then arrested through cold and filtration, and subsequently allowed to restart in the bottle, with no addition of yeast and sugar permitted. In most instances, the yeast sediment is removed through the transfer method and the resultant sparkling wine is semi-sweet with alcohol levels varying between 7% and 9%.
Located west of Geneva and the Alps in the Ain department, just south of Jura, Cerdon is a geographic denomination (yes, it’s a mouthful, but the word ‘cru’ is no longer officially allowed – that’s a whole other story) of Bugey, which gained AOC status in 2009, having previously been VDQS. Cerdon is always rosé, made from primarily Gamay, with Poulsard also allowed. Less than two million bottles are made annually from about 180 hectares of vineyards located between 300m and 500m altitude on the southern foothills of the Jura mountains. The largest producer, Lingot-Martin makes about 20% of Cerdon’s production, with the rest split between more than 30 other producers.
A couple of hundred kilometres south of Cerdon, due east of Valence and the Rhône River, the vineyards of the Clairette de Die appellation in the Drôme department lie between 300m and 600m on the foothills of the Vercors mountains either side of the Drôme river. The region has an ancient tradition of sparkling wine production, with Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, mentioning the wines in his Natural History. The appellation, created originally in 1942, is complicated, but the main production is of ancestral-method white wines made from a minimum of 75% Muscat à Petit Grains, with the Clairette grape variety used in addition if desired (the grape Clairette is used mostly for a Brut version and for Crémant de Die). About 1,500ha of vineyards are used for Clairette de Die Méthode Ancestrale and about 70% is made by one sole producer, the co-operative Jaillance. The rest of the 12 million-bottle annual production is split between around 30 other producers, including a couple of négociants.
Clairette wants a rosé and Cerdon sees red
The four Méthode Ancestrale AOCs have always worked together to defend the right to use the method on the label, successfully stopping those producing Vin de France or IGP from using it, (for the record, most producers of Pétillant Naturel use a version of the ancestral method). At one of their regular meetings in 2015, Bugey-Cerdon discovered that Clairette de Die had applied to the INAO (who control the AOCs) for a modification to their cahier des charges (AOC rule book) to allow them to produce a rosé. Many producers in Die had discovered that there was a natural red variation of Muscat à Petit Grains in their vineyards – so for the rosé colour, they proposed to use these grapes along with Gamay, which has been grown for many years in the small Châtillion-en-Diois appellation within the greater Clairette de Die or Diois region. Their plan was to produce about one million bottles of rosé annually in the short term. Cerdon was horrified – firstly, they had always promoted themselves as being the only AOC rosé Méthode Ancestrale; secondly, their very own Gamay grape was to be involved; and thirdly, especially with the dominant Jaillance involved, they could see there might be price pressure.
Cerdon formally opposed the application, citing historical precedent, but all that happened was that Clairette de Die reduced the amount of Gamay in their application, limiting it to 10% of the final blend and came up with some sketchy evidence that rosé had been produced historically. The INAO approved the modification to the cahier des charges in time for the 2016 vintage: Clairette de Die rosé could be made under the same requirement as white for 75% Muscat à Petit Grains, but with a minimum of 5% red grapes used, which could be either the red version of Muscat or Gamay (limited to 10%).
My conversations with the Bugey AOC syndicate president at the time, Eric Angelot, and one of his vice-presidents, Jean-Luc Guillon (now president and one of the partners in Lingot Martin), revealed them to be almost apoplectic with rage about the INAO granting this change and determined to fight to the bitter end. Guillon described it as a ‘marketing appellation’ and declared that it opened potential floodgates for other appellations, such as Beaujolais, to apply for an AOC Méthode Ancestrale, with little to do with the heritage AOCs are supposed to uphold. Despite Cerdon producers easily selling all that they make, Angelot and Guillon believed firmly that they needed to protect their small producers (including several young vignerons) from prices being dragged down. Cerdon sells mainly in France, most of it for less than 10 euros a bottle direct from the cellars.
The little guy wins
Bugey had two months from the date of the appellation being granted in November 2016 to appeal to the Conseil d’Etat, the French high court. In January 2017, they did indeed decide to launch the appeal, something that seemed quite astounding to this writer, considering they could have used those funds to market their wine as superior in every way… In the meantime, Clairette de Die rosé from the 2016 vintage was still permitted be produced while the appeal was ongoing. In June 2017, the first dozen Clairette de Die rosés were released to much fanfare. And such was Clairette de Die’s confidence in the Conseil d’Etat throwing out Cerdon’s case, that in spring, planning for a rosy future, there were more plantings of Gamay and the red version of Muscat à Petit Grains.
And then, seemingly to everyone’s surprise except for those in Bugey, in January 2018 the Conseil d’Etat decided in favour of Cerdon, rapping the knuckles of the INAO for not properly investigating historical precedent. Now it was Clairette de Die’s turn to be astounded and angry. What’s more, they now had stocks not only of whatever was unsold of 2016, but all of 2017 destined for rosé too. Due to the way Clairette de Die interprets the ancestral method, bottling is done as late as possible, preferring to keep the part-fermented still wine at 0°C until more stock is needed. The question was would they be allowed to label it as Clairette de Die Méthode Ancestrale AOC, given that up to the 2017 vintage it was made in good faith of an appellation for rosé? And if not, then why not simply label it as Vin de France, like a Pétillant Naturel, you may ask? Well here comes the sting in the tail.
The law is an ass and the little guy gets heavy
In 1957, presumably at the request of the Clairette de Die vignerons of the time – several ‘grandparents’ of the current generation, perhaps – a law was passed forbidding any other sparkling wines to be made within the AOC limits of Clairette de Die and Crémant de Die. This means that no sparkling wines under the labels Vin de Pays/IGP or Vin de France (known increasingly as VSIG – Vin Sans Indication Géographique) may be produced, leaving the producers of rosé Clairette de Die up the sparkling creek without a paddle. They were not slow in trying to sort this out, asking for an amendment to this law within a much wider law change for agricultural products in France. The legal powers-that-be threw out their clause (along with many others) on some technicality in October 2018.
In early November 2018, I was informed that producers in Clairette de Die have about 5,000 hectolitres (the equivalent of 650,000 bottles) of 2017 blended rosé in their cellars, plus some 2016, with no way to label it, if they were to proceed with fermentation and release it. Due to French law as the harvest was ‘declared’ for making Clairette de Die rosé, they would not be allowed to make a still rosé with it, but this, along with red wine is their option for future years for their Gamay plantings. The red variant of Muscat can still be used for the white Clairette de Die.
In the meantime, Bugey-Cerdon has complained that it still sees Clairette de Die rosé on sale in supermarkets (Jaillance and some of the other big players have a big presence there). I have seen it for sale in Clairette de Die producers tasting rooms. If a solution is not found soon, the remaining 2016 and 2017 wines will have to be distilled, unless Clairette de Die producers just take the risk to keep on bottling and selling it, or Bugey softens its stance. Surely the producers of Cerdon, who have after all defied the odds and won their case, could have at least some sympathy for their fellow vignerons at the other end of the French Alps?
This article was first published for the Circle of Wine Writers journal, The Circular, and I am grateful to Robert Smyth and Amanda Barnes for editing it.