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Chez Thierry, Nassau, Bahamas

6th article

by Thierry Boeuf in The Tribune (March 20, 2001)


Breaking wine down by quality

(Appellations and classifications)


Before concentrating on the subject of classification, I want to go back briefly to my last column, in which I spoke about tasting wine. I should have mentioned then that a professional cannot ever stop tasting as it becomes second nature to concentrate on smells and tastes not only in wine but whether these are in foods, a new perfumes or a new beverage.

 It is always very interesting to find the similarities between different products.  For instance, a few days ago at the end of the last dinner organized by La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, we had a Chinese spirit that had a very special taste, and it struck a chord with my memory that I was unable to recollect at the time. It bothered me so much that I had to email a friend to discover the name of the Asian fruit this spirit tasted like. I had tasted this fruit, the durian, only once five years ago, but it had has such a specific taste similar to that of a very mature cheese that I could not forget.

In my experience, both here in the Bahamas and elsewhere, when it comes to asking for a wine, many people become a bit confused because of the amount of vocabulary used to name wines and even more so, in describing it. There is no reason to be ashamed of not knowing them all -even professionals need quite a while to learn them - so you cannot imagine knowing them just by walking into a wine store.

One of the most difficult and controversial things when looking for a good bottle of wine is the appellation, as it is called in France, or denominazione in Italy, denominacion in Spain, or bestimmtes anbaugebiet in Germany. The appellation always carries a regions name, meaning that the product is from the region mentioned on the label.

Appellations were created at the beginning of the 20th century, when most of the French and European vineyards had been destroyed by several diseases that all originated from the US around 1850. The most severe was the Phylloxera, which is not exactly a disease but rather a small parasite.   It had been living among the American grapevines without any problem, but as soon as these parasites reached Europe, they infested the grapevines through the roots and killed most of them. The specialists believe it was at this stage that all the wild grapevines from European forest disappeared.

However, I am not going to detail the entire history of this invasion today. I only mention it to explain why in the 1900s there was a shortage of wines in France, and that a number of substitutes were made to replace them.

 For example, some mixed red beet juice with water and alcohol and called it wine, from which the expression known as the Bercy wines evolved. Bercy was a major wine market in Paris, which still exists today as a label for all kinds of dubious wines. In order to protect the wine makers and their customers, a law was passed in 1905 to prevent fraud, and the definition of wine was clarified as a product made exclusively from fresh grape juice.

In 1935, the INAO (National Institute for Appellations of Origins) was created. This is an organization that determines the rules of the use of the appellations names.  It stipulates that a product can bear an appellation name only if it is made in the appellation area and with a process that strictly respects the rules - it was not only written for wines but also for many other items, such as spirits, cheeses, butters, lambs, poultry and, recently I learnt that the same regulation applies for the china from Limoges.

The common factor is that they all work like Russian dolls with different sizes, the smaller the appellation area, the better the wines. In fact, each appellation has its own history and it is the Bordeaux version that will give you an idea of the incredible complexity of the system.

The Bordeaux appellation includes all the French department of Gironde, with the city of Bordeaux in the centre. Inside this appellation are many sub-appellations, such as Médoc, Saint-Emilion or Pomerol. Further inside the Médoc appellation you have two sections, the most famous called Haut-Médoc, and inside this one you have smaller appellations communales with the names of villages such as Pauillac, and in each of them you have a number of Châteaux, such as Château Lafite-Rothschild. A château castle in the UK is described in Bordeaux as a property with a vineyard and a cellar. You would think you could not go any further, except for the fact that the best known Châteaux usually produce two wines, with only the best one allowed to carry the name.

The French INAO designates which of the vineyards or properties are entitled to carry an appellations name but matters would probably be too simple if we were speaking of all appellations the same way. The most famous for the red Bordeaux wines is the Médoc appellation, which is ruled by a classification made in 1855, based on a scale going from First Growth (Premier Cru) to Fifth Growth (Cinquieme Cru) and most of the Châteaux being kept out of this list. You can imagine that since then, some wines have improved and others have declined, but it is as if that year the people, who made it, had written something as durable as Moses Ten Commandments.

Beside this, there is the Saint-Emilion appellation where every few years a new round of tasting designs a new classification. In Pomerol, though, there is officially no classification, even if Château Pétrus has been considered from long ago as out of class, and its price is the highest in Bordeaux.

In other regions you have different systems, with sometimes the same words meaning something else. For instance, in Burgundy, the best wines are called Grand Cru, while the second level of quality is Premier Cru and the third level is the communal just before the regional level - the lowest - which is Burgundy. In other words for each region you need to know how the appellation system works. Or you can choose like many people to ignore all that and follow James Parkers advice - he gives his own rating every year.

Before I leave you I would like to demonstrate the high degree of importance attached to classification by saying a word about another type that we have in France for the restaurants.  Many guides and gastronomic books are written every year but there is one, the red guide by Michelin, that can transform chefs into stars one year, and plunge the restaurant into bankruptcy the next.

 Out of the thousands of restaurants in France, most are referenced with a number of forks to give an idea of their quality, and a small minority has stars, from one to three. Only about twenty restaurants have three stars, and when a chef becomes part of this elite, he truly becomes a star of something that is regarded by many as a major art, cuisine.

In the latest Michelin guide, for the first time in history, a chef named Marc Veyrat received three stars for both his restaurants, and I can tell you that since then a number of food lovers made reservation within his restaurants straight away, because this kind of fame causes generally a restaurant to be fully booked at least a year in advance even you can expect to see the prices skyrocketing. Some people cross the entire country simply for one meal in one of these, what we call, temples of cuisine.

Perhaps now you can understand why the classifications are so important for professionals!