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France Loses a Reformer

René Renou, who oversaw the appellations system while proposing reforms to it, dies at age 54

Mitch Frank
Posted: June 22, 2006

René Renou, who launched a bold plan to reform France's appellation rules, died early Monday morning in Seoul, South Korea. President of the committee on wines and brandies for France's Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), Renou was in Korea to help promote French wine and cuisine. The cause of his death has not been announced, but he had been ill with cancer for more than a year. He was 54.

In charge of overseeing France's wine Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) since 2000, Renou stunned the wine world in April 2004, when he called for reform of the system, arguing that it had lost meaning for consumers and hurt French wine sales around the world. Too many vin de pays-quality wines had been recognized as AOC designations, in Renou's opinion; in other words, lower-quality wines were being associated with some of the most prestigious winegrowing areas.

The AOC system and the INAO were created in 1935 to restore consumer confidence in wine quality. However, France now has more then 460 AOCs. "You'd be surprised how many AOCs have rules that are empty of meaning," Renou told Wine Spectator in 2004. "Consumers can't trust our AOCs."

Renou proposed creating a new quality standard, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée d'Excellence, which would only be given to premier areas, producing about 10 percent of French wines, that met rigorous standards and submitted their wines to tasting panels. The remaining 90 percent of wineries in the old AOCs would be freed from some of the more ponderous rules that tended to restrict creativity and reform, such as restrictions on planting, crop yields, winemaking techniques, blending and labeling.

The members of the INAO are still debating Renou's reforms, though an initial plan was approved earlier this month and now goes to vignerons for discussion. Upon news of his death, the organization released a statement reading, "René Renou had worked to give the concept of Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée new meaning by proposing reforms to regain confidence of French and international consumers. Impassioned and demanding, Renou changed the face of wine."

Renou worked as a winegrower in the Loire Valley, in Anjou, since 1979. His Bonnezeaux Cuvée Zénith 2002, a dessert wine made from Chenin Blanc, scored 96 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. He was ill with cancer for a year, but had shown signs of recovery in recent months, and was reappointed to a second term as president in March.

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