When is a Pinot Noir not a Pinot Noir?
When it is grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France and marketed under a variety of tantalizing labels to unsuspecting consumers in the US -- at least in one ongoing case of fraud.
On February 17, 2010 a group of about a dozen French co-op and independent winemakers in the Aude and Hérault départements of Languedoc-Roussillon were found guilty by a French court of making and exporting some 18 million bottles of faux Pinot Noir from 2006 to 2008. Much of it was sold in the US under the Red Bicyclette label, owned by E&J Gallo.
Gallo's head winemaker Gina Gallo, grand-daughter of Julio, is married to Jean-Charles Boisset, a Burgundian born in Dijon and brought up in Vougeot, one of Burgundy's prime winegrowing villages. Burgundy is the cradle of Pinot Noir. Boisset is the scion of the country's third-largest wine company. It sells many Pinot Noir wines.
What the case appears to suggest is that even some experts can no longer identify the variety of grape used to make certain wines. It clearly proves that many American "connoisseurs," not to mention average wine drinkers, enjoyed and sometimes lavishly praised the unsung Vin de Pays d'Oc, which is what the faux Pinot Noir turned out to be.
Inky, oaky, soft, redolent of cinnamon and spice, highly alcoholic and made using multiple cheap grape varieties raised in the sunny Languedoc-Roussillon region, this kind of wine, often unkindly termed plonk, gives a new spin to the concept of French terroir.
It raises a second inconvenient question: When is terroir not terroir?
The answer: Much of the time.
Terroir is a slippery subject, a concept hard to define and easy to abuse. What it means when not adulterated by copywriters is a food or wine embodying trueness to type, respectful of traditions, and made only in a particular locale with which it is intimately associated. By this definition an authentic terroir wine is the time-tested product of the soil and the seasons and the winemaker's art.
The tale of Languedoc-Roussillon's faux Pinot Noir would be comical if it weren't typical of the kind of worldwide trends in wine denounced in the landmark film, Mondovino, which includes a segment on Boisset. The case shows how many consumers happily accept what is predictable, standardized, easy to quaff, and relatively cheap, especially if the product is gussied up with packaging, and described enticingly.
"Terroir Délicieux" is how Red Bicyclette is presented on redbicyclette.com. The site claims that the term terroir, in French, "links the taste of wine with the place where the grapes are grown."
If so, Thompson Seedless (Sultana) grapes grown in southern France would qualify as components of French terroir wine. Prolific, the variety makes millions of gallons of America's cheap, sweet, bulk blending wines.
Modesto terroir? Maybe. But not French terroir.
Unsurprisingly Thompson Seedless is not a traditional variety of Languedoc-Roussillon. Neither is Pinot Noir, a grape that could never produce an authentic terroir wine in this torrid, Mediterranean landscape. A discerning palate might wonder what the fradulent Pinot Noir had to do with the traditional winemaking techniques associated with the variety, or the peculiarities of the region's soil, or the climate, and by what rights it could represent French terroir, other than the fact that it was grown in France.
In Burgundy, Pinot Noir wine generally does not go by the varietal name, unless it is a lesser bottling sold under a regional appellation such as "Bourgogne Pinot Noir," "Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise," "Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune," and so forth. The best red Burgundy wines, made with Pinot Noir, are known by their village, vineyard or climate -- a microclimate that might embrace just a few rows of grapes in a single plot. These wines could be grown and made nowhere else, and in their own peculiar way are the quintessence of French terroir -- authentic terroir.
Much to the mirth of French pundits, the fradulent Pinot Noir of Languedoc-Roussillon was wine that the French could not sell to Frenchmen, as a spokesperson for the winemakers at the trial explained. But it was slurped up in America, fetched a fine price, and got glowing reviews.
Though the fraud went on for several years, no one seems to have noticed, and no one in America complained, including Gallo. The scam was exposed by a perspicacious French customs officer. He noticed that the region could not possibly produce the quantities of Pinot Noir needed to fill 18 million bottles of wine.
The civil action against the winemakers was filed by the radical French farmer's union Fédération Paysanne, whose longtime leader, José Bové, has crusaded against everything from genetically modified crops to the opening of a McDonald's franchise in Millau. The Fédération was awarded a symbolic 1 euro.
Why does this story sound strangely familiar? In 1849 the French wit Alphonse Karr coined the expression, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
Click back a few thousand years to when the Romans first quipped caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware. They also invented another catchy expression: de gustibus non est disputandum -- there's no accounting for taste.
At the peak of Roman hegemony, sweet, highly alcoholic, spicy plonk for the Empire was grown and concocted primarily in the south of France and exported as far as galley slaves could row. Roman winemakers used terracotta jars, not oak barrels. They doctored their wines with everything from sea water and plaster to honey, quince, thyme and sage -- but not chips of toasted oak. Ironically it was the Gauls of Eastern, Central and Northern France -- shaggy haired Barbarians to the Romans -- who mastered the art of making oak barrels. And it was in the forested regions of Barbarian France that wooden winemaking and storage equipment became the norm.
Today the irony is twofold, deriving from the curious fact that the Gallic Barbarians of antiquity became the great winemakers of the Middle Ages and modern times, and that the overuse of wood and the delight in cloying sweetness is what now distinguishes New World wines, and mediocre European wines designed for the New World or for the former-Barbarian markets of Germany, the UK and Northern European. The faux Pinot Noir was one such wine, and did not find buyers in France.
In Burgundy, it was monks at Cluny Abbey who merged the Roman art of winegrowing with the wood of Gaul, using the wood judiciously. Before losing their heads in the French Revolution, Cluny's monks spent a mere thousand years or so perfecting Burgundy wines. They found the best plots of land and the right grape varieties to grow on them. They shunned sweetness. This year Cluny Abbey celebrates its 1,100 birthday, a blink of the Burgundian eye. The methods and vineyard divisions the monks created have been tweaked over time, but existto this day, and are the foundations of the region's terroir. Pinot Noir was the noblest of the varieties they made their own.
The Languedoc-Roussillon Pinot Noir fraud is a landmark case precisely because it points to trends more troubling than the neo-Barbarian passion for misleadingly labeled plonk. It illustrates the danger of discrediting authentic terroir wherever it may be. Terroir is all about smallness of scale and uniqueness of product. Terroir is most often the result of mom 'n' pop passion. It is slow, sustainable, and sometimes unprofitable. Terroir is the natural enemy of big money. When it becomes the stock in trade of big money, alarm bells should ring.
Those who prefer snazzy labels and zingy blends over boring old peasant products will be glad to know that the masters of corporate marketing are busily transforming Europe into a theme park of gastronomy and oenology. Will they succeed? Maybe, maybe not. Increasingly they are meeting resistence from curmudgeonly food and wine lovers, and critics, many of them from the New World. On the ground, people like José Bové and the Fédération Paysanne continue to raise hell. Had the Fédération not filed a complaint, the Pinot Noir scandal would have disappeared in deafening silence.
One reviewer of Food Wine Burgundy remarked, correctly, that my book is not a dirge, but rather a call to arms. Hope comes in the form of savvy consumers, and from the natives, that grizzled gang of Gauls armed with prewar tractors and pitch forks. It comes in the form of plucky France's symbol, a rooster: the cocky feistiness of French farmers, winemakers and consumers is the best guarantee that French food and wine -- whether Pinot Noir or other -- will continue to strive for authentic terroir excellence in decades to come.
David Downie (www.davidddownie.com), author of Food Wine Burgundy, a Terroir Guide.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more