Last Wednesday 2nd October many in the wine world both in France and outside expected the long running case against Olivier Cousin to come to a conclusion. This hearing was due for the afternoon.
Around 14.30 with perhaps 50 of Cousin’s supporters crowded into the back of the court, Alain Fouquet, the barrister for the INAO, pleaded for a delay. As a civil party in this case ‘they hadn’t had time to prepare their case’. Fouquet spoke of the importance of this case. Searching for the moral high ground He spoke of the significance of the terroir and the human influence – ‘les hommes et le terroir’.
Although Eric Morain, Cousin’s Parisian lawyer, objected strongly and spoke eloquently against the possibility of delaying this case that had already taken two years to come to court, the judges, after retiring to consider the INAO’s request, agreed that the hearing should be pushed back to 5th March 2014 at 14.00 hours.
Was this a delaying tactic by the INAO concerned that the proceedings against Cousin have become a cause célèbre attracting considerable attention in the press and on the internet? Wednesday’s court hearing was front-page news in the regional Courrier de l’Ouest (2nd October) and Libération ran an article the day before. On the net the influential Jancis Robinson MW ran a news item that morning on her site.
The plea for a delay by the INAO widens the focus from Anjou onto the appellation system itself. It was a letter from the Fédération Viticole de l’Anjou-Saumur, which provoked the visit to Cousin’s domaine by the Répression des Fraudes (DGCCRF) in 2011. The Fédération’s complaint then was over the use of Anjou Olivier Cousin on his wine cases. However, this did not worry the DGCCRF agents as this was printed on the box not on the label – a nice Feydeau touch here! Instead they objected to ‘Anjou Pur Breton’ on the labels of Cousin’s vin de table – Cabernet Franc from the 2009 vintage. Under the vin de table rules there could be no mention of which part of France the wine came from, the vintage nor the grape variety. Under the 2009 reform, which created Vin de France, the grape variety and vintage can be mentioned on the label but still not where it was made.
In all 2802 bottles carried the offending label. There is no doubt that Cousin broke the rules that ought to have warranted a small fine. Instead Cousin faces a possible two years in prison and a fine of up to 37,000€. The case documents now well over a foot high – a small mountain in formation! The case and the threatened punishment is out of all proportion to the offence. Not to mention the amount of public money that is being spent on this.
It is very difficult to argue that Cousin benefitted financially from using ‘Anjou’ on his labels. Unfortunately Anjou is not one of France’s most prestigious appellations. The majority of Cousin’s wines are exported and I suspect that people buy his wines because they are made by him. Certainly by now Olivier Cousin is a much stronger brand than Anjou.
Cousin and Morain have also staked out the moral high ground emphasizing Cousin’s biodynamic viticulture and natural winemaking and contrasting this with 134 chemical products allowed in AOC winemaking (Courrier de l’Ouest: 3.10.13).
Inevitably views have become polarized. There is a tendency for some in the natural wine camp to dismiss all ‘non-natural’ wines as industrial concoctions, while there are those from the other side who dismiss natural wines as being faulty. Neither position stands up to any scrutiny.
There are some excellent ‘natural’ wines. Equally there are some terrible ‘natural’ wines. Also there are many producers not in the natural camp that farm responsibly and make excellent wines, without using the arsenal of products available to them. See Vincent Pousson’s excellent post on his blog of 3rd October. http://ideesliquidesetsolides.blogspot.fr/2013/10/nul-nest-cense-ignorer-la-loire.html
Although as the Courrier de l’Ouest suggests the case is likely be decided by the letter of the law, the INAO has widened the debate and has thus become the major issue. Is the organization still fit for purpose?
Why are an increasing number of high quality producers considering opting out of the AOP system and moving to Vin de France? I saw Noël Pinguet (formerly of Domaine Huet in Vouvray) a fortnight ago. He said that he had discussed the possibility of withdrawing from AC Vouvray with Anthony Hwang and that Anthony had been sympathetic to the idea. In Muscadet last week Marie Luneau-Chartier explained that they were ditching the traditional Muscadet bottle for their single vineyard wines because of Muscadet’s poor reputation with the consumer, who is convinced that all Muscadet should be cheap to drink as an aperitif and shellfish. The Luneaus find it impossible to get consumers to take the Muscadet Crus Communaux seriously unless they opt for a different shaped bottle – Burgundy for example.
Why is it that it is often the high quality and internationally renowned producers have trouble with the agrément?
Why are there so many petty rules about permitted grape varieties, which all too often are based not on any tradition but on dogma and local politics? Why, for instance, are appellations like the Côtes d’Auvergne, Coteaux du Giennois and Châteaumeillant saddled with the requirement that their Pinot Noir be blended with Gamay?
If terroir is so important what has the INAO done to reduce the wholesale use of weed killers in the AOP vineyards? If the INAO has taken on the exclusive right to use geographic names such as Anjou for wines it surely has a duty of care to look after the terroir properly so that it can be passed onto future generations in a fit state.
If the INAO and the Fédération Viticole were hoping that a six-month delay would cause the media and the internet to lose interest in the case, I suspect that this will be a forlorn hope. Cousin says they will organise a natural wine fair on Angers on Wednesday 5th March 2014 – quite probably at the Greniers de Saint Jean, as early March could be too chilly to hold a second picnic in front of the Palais de Justice.
We have already booked our hotel room in Angers for 5th March.
Crowd 3rd October