Friday, May 7, 2010

No More Vin de Table, and Other Idiosyncrasies of French Wine Labeling: A Case Study

It's more than fair to say that I take a far greater interest in what's in the bottle — and what it takes to get it there — than what's on the bottle. Nonetheless, I have been known to take more than a passing interest in the finer points of labeling, especially as those details apply to the subtleties (and vagaries) of the French and Italian wine bureaucracies, not to mention the semantic choices made at wineries.

Subtle labeling changes with any particular wine from vintage to vintage, sometimes even mid-vintage, are so common that one could devote a blog entirely to their chronicling and easily find fodder for 365+ posts per year. I'm not about to build that house, as I wouldn't want to live in it. But I will visit from time to time when the opportunity grabs me.

Not even touching on the fact that I love the wine (at least not for now), there's an awful lot going on with Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque," which has undergone fairly major changes in labeling semantics in the last three consecutive vintages.
When the differences in labeling between the 2007, 2008 and 2009 editions of "Vin de Pétanque" from Mas de Libian caught my eye — I had enjoyed a bottle of the 2008 only days before the 2009 came ashore (and came home for dinner) — I fought my natural inclination to try to interpret all of the changes on my own. Instead, I reached out to Hélène Thibon, who grows the wines at Mas de Libian, with a veritable avalanche of questions. I suspect the detail of my questions may have taken her by surprise, but she responded with grace — and lots of great information. Here's what she had to say, peppered, of course, with my own interpretations. I couldn't leave them out entirely now, could I?

Vin de Pays, Vin de Table, Vin de France

The biggest shift, in that it is indicative of the farthest-reaching changes, is in the official designation of the three vintages: Vin de Pays for the '07, Vin de Table for the '08, and Vin de France (I believe the "Bon" is purely Hélène's modification) in '09.

There was a time that I might have jumped to the conclusion that a move from AOC or Vin de Pays status to "Vin de Table" was a forced declassification, a punishment of sorts as legislated by the bureaucrats of the INAO. But over the last few years, an increasing number of producers have been voluntarily opting to use the supposedly inferior VdT category. Hélène confirmed that the latter was indeed the case. She had originally chosen Vin de Pays status for Pétanque, even though the fruit comes entirely from her young vines in the Côtes-du-Rhône and Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages areas, as her own personal declassification, a statement that said "this is my simpler, more casual wine." She chose the move to Vin de Table status with the 2008 vintage because it allowed her greater freedom when it came to decisions such as harvest date and blending.

As for the move from Vin de Table to Vin de France in '09, Hélène is simply getting a head start. At the end of 2010, the Vin de Table designation will no longer be allowed in France, replaced by the seemingly catch-all designation of Vin de France. This is part of a broad spectrum of changes to the entire French AOC system, as well as to geographic labeling conventions throughout the EU, that are due to be implemented by the end of this year. You can read a little more about it here.

2007, 8002, 2009

After the big changes detailed above, the rest are at least somewhat simpler and largely interrelated. Vin de Pays status has historically allowed for, indeed required, the vintage dating of wines. The Vin de Table category, conversely, did not allow the use of a vintage date on the label, whether or not the wine was produced from the fruit of a single harvest. A kind of legislative punishment for utilizing the VdT category, one (along with the VdT status itself) likely to result in more difficult sales for the bulk of wineries. Producers came up with all kind of creative ways to convey the year of origin of their wines, from lot numbers to embedded codes in their label art. Hélène's solution for her 2008 VdT was simple: print the date in reverse and make it look ambiguously artsy — in this case, like an etching on a pétanque ball. With the new "Vin de France" category, vintage dates are permitted.

Hélène Thibon and her horse Nestor, conducting déchaussage (plowing soil back from the foots of the vines) in the vineyard at spring. I've taken the liberty of borrowing the above picture from the new Mas de Libian website, which is more than worth a visit (even if you don't like Flash) for its extensive photo gallery.

Mas de Libian "Vin de Pétanque," Vin de Pétanque de Libian
(Mise en bouteille au mas, Mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian)

The stricture against vintage dating having been lifted, the INAO apparently felt it necessary to put another ambiguity (and potential economic hardship) in place. The shift here is subtle and requires an understanding of the language used on French wine labels to differentiate between estate bottled and non-estate bottled wines.

Any time a winery name as presented on a wine label opens with the words Domaine, Château or, less frequently, Mas (southern French dialect for "farmhouse"), you're being told that the wine is estate bottled. It's been produced by a winery that owns and farms its own land; harvests and crushes its own fruit; vinifies, ages and bottles its own wines; and markets those wines under its own label.

Likewise, there are any number of phrases that are part and parcel of French wine labels that can also convey this kind of information. "Mise en bouteille au domaine... au château... à la proprieté... au mas" all indicate that a wine was "placed in bottle at the estate," estate bottled if you prefer.

So, one arbitrary rule having been lifted, another has been put in place. The regulations for the Vin de France category do not allow wines to be labeled as estate bottled, even if they are — and Hélène Thibon's "Vin de Pétanque" is. It's the shifts in the naming and provenance conventions in use on the label that reflects this change, as "mise en bouteille par Mas de Libian" means "bottled by Mas de Libian," not bottled "at the estate." Someone out of the know with the background of this wine but in the know with French labeling conventions would pick up this bottle, read the label, and rightly assume (but wrongly conclude) that it is some form of négociant or more commercial bottling.

That's it for the technical stuff. As with so many other independent vigneron(ne)s, Hélène is accepting the somewhat pejorative nature of the Vin de Table/Vin de France rules rather than being subject to the more restrictive nature of the rules governing the higher categories of VDP and AOC, which will soon be replaced by Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) and Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) — more on those at a future date, when I've had a chance to more fully understand and digest the legalese of their meanings. To quote Hélène via my rough translation capabilities, "We do not want to be slaves of the new European and French directives that we deem aberrant!"

Produce of France, Product of France

This is an old favorite of mine, something I've long wanted to post about. To my knowledge, this language, in the large sense, must appear on all French wine labels. The exact syntax, though, is up to the winery (or label designer). While "Product of France" (and the corresponding "Produit de France") is by far the more common, I have a soft spot for "Produce...". Though I suspect it's more an accident of translation than an intentional play on the subtleties of English, I like the way that "produce," used as a noun, denotes the wine as a food product, an agricultural product. I hope I'm not the only one that thinks like this.

Vin issu de raisin de l'agriculture biologique certifié par...

I'm still waiting for an answer from Hélène on this. Her entire estate has been farmed organically since the 1960s, and she began biodynamic conversion in 2005. As far as I know, the entire property is certified organic. Yet the only one of her wines where I've ever seen the certification (by ULASE) mentioned is "Pétanque" and it's been dropped from the label with her 2009 release. Is it a marketing issue? Another imposed limitation? Or simply personal choice? Your thoughts are welcome, and I'll share Mme. Thibon's response as soon as possible.

What about the wine, you say?

Oh yeah, if you've made it this far I suppose you might want to know at least a little bit about what's in the bottle. As I said in opening, that's what really counts.

"Vin de Pétanque" is a blend of Grenache and Syrah (about 75/25) from the young vines (4-20 years-old) of the estate, fermented in tank with native yeasts, a short maceration of about five days, and no added sulfur dioxide. As the name implies ("pétanque" is the local name for boules), Hélène views it as a casual wine for everyday enjoyment, one that can be served chilled throughout the summer.

The 2009 is delicious; richer (13%) than the previous two vintages and an early indicator of the success of the vintage both in the Ardèche and at the Mas de Libian. It's dark purple in the glass, a color reflected in the wine's juicy spirit and vital energy, vibrantly fruity and enticingly peppery. Summer indeed. I'm thinking burgers — or just about anything else you might consider throwing on the grill and pairing with a fresh, young red.

Enjoy it (you really should), and thanks for reading!


Lars said...

Although the juice is of most importance, I like to look at the finer points of labeling and packaging, too. It always seems to change, even though I'm often disappointed by this.

You could have added bottle types to the mix, as well. Many wineries have switched to heavier, more expensive bottles. Fortunately, there's been a movement against this trend of grandeur. On the Mosel, some vintners select the taller 35-cm flute to the now-standard 33 cm. The former is impractical for small European fridges and comes in an even heavier bottle often with the VDP "Erste Lage" embossed. Glass colors differ, too.

In Châteauneuf, the one syndicate discontinued using the "classic" bottle and created the modern-looking La Mitrale, and certain well-known domaines came out with their own coat of arms embossed on the bottle, such as Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, or La Nerthe. In Piedmont, some growers use the Albeisa, others prefer a high-shoulder bottle or both.

On labels it can be so confusing for the consumer to understand all the details, laws, and meanings, especially with more vintners declassifying their wines now and being forced to change the legal wording or coming up with their own internal winery language. The source and definition of bottling can also be difficult to decipher.

Just like you, I prefer "Produce of France" for the same reasons. And we could go on and on about label designs, paper, and so forth.

John Livingstone-Learmonth recommended Mas de Libian years ago, but I've yet to taste her wines.

Enjoy your trip to Piedmont.

David McDuff said...


Thanks for all this. I left bottle type out of the equation in this case as I was really looking only at the changes/differences with this one wine from a single estate. Based on the wines from Mas de Libian with which I have firsthand familiarity (Pétanque, Bout d'Zan and Khayyam), there is no difference in bottle shape, size, weight or color from cuvée to cuvée. I like it that way, as the trend toward heavy, extra-wide, extra-tall, etc., bottle shapes drives me crazy as both a retailer and a home cellarer.

Understanding all of the label details in France is daunting enough. As you point out, it can be even tougher in Germany, where there tends to be more detail to begin with. Add in the changes being made by many VdP members as well as private branding and it's almost impossible to stay on top of.

Like I said, an entire blog could easily be devoted to the subject and never run out of material.

Do try Hélène's wines if you have the chance. They're very expressive and very much worth the effort.

Finally, thanks for the buon viaggio. Can't wait....

Joe Manekin said...


Thanks for all the info. Aberrant indeed, and abhorrent I might add. One has to question the real, modern day objectives and motives of the INAO as they certainly do not appear to match with what they must have been some 80 or however many years ago when it initially was formed.

I too will need to try the Mas de Libian, if for no other reason then to see if it may become a select member of the 5 or 6 wine group of French grenache based wines that I can happily drink.


MTO said...

hey there David---Can you tell me who is the importer for Mas de Libian? I know you're based in Philly, and as I'm also on the east coast, I'm hopeful for some clues...thanks!

David McDuff said...

The only East Coast importer for Mas de Libian that I know of is Petit Pois (aka, Sussex/Fleet Street). They work only in NY, PA, NJ and DE. You might try contacting Mas de Libian directly (there's an email address on their website) to see if the wines are currently available in New England.

Rick Ostrand said...

Elite wines in Md., D.C. and Va. also bring in this wine. I sell the 2009 at my store in Md. THought it a nice value, but it has underperformed for me. There is plenty of competition in the Rhone category.

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