Geographical Indications and Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée du Rhum, the game of seven differences

Let’s dive together into the mysteries of the AOC Martinique and the different GIs that frame the rums of the French overseas departments (Antilles, Guyana and Reunion) through their history, what brings them together, but also what separates them.

Indications Géographiques rhum

Although AOC Martinique rum is a well-known name among rum lovers, the numerous geographical indications (GIs) are much less well known. For more than a century now, France has been multiplying appellations and indications in the wine and spirits sector. Originally, the aim was to combat fraud.

In 1905, an important law on the repression of fraud laid the legal foundations for appellations. Practices were slowly but surely harmonised and this led to the creation of the Comité National des Appellations d’Origine on 30 July 1935.

Metropolitan spirits also joined the movement, but rum, despite the unconvincing existence of an Appellation d’Origine Simple (AOS), only really entered the dance of appellations at the end of the 20th century, when rum from Martinique obtained an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The other overseas territories created geographical indications.

GI and AOC, what is the difference?

The National Institute of Origin and Quality (INAO), which is responsible for implementing the policy of appellations and indications, defines the geographical indication as follows: the GI “identifies a raw or processed agricultural product whose quality, reputation or other characteristics are linked to its geographical origin”. GIs recognise the know-how of producers. The rums of Guadeloupe, French Guiana and Reunion have a Geographical Indication.

The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée “designates a product in which all the production stages are carried out according to a recognised know-how in the same geographical area, which gives the product its characteristics”. While these definitions may seem similar, it is in fact the notion of terroir that underpins the construction of an AOC. “Terroir is often summed up in terms of soil, but it must be understood that it is an interaction between the plant, the soil, the climate and human know-how throughout production and processing,” points out Marc Sassier, President of the Syndicate AOC Rhum de la Martinique.

The differences between the AOC and GI specifications mainly concern the classification of eligible land, the yield per hectare, the saccharin content (Brix), the degree of fermentation and distillation, the difference in the number of trays in the column, the imposition of the column for the AOC Martinique or the use of copper in the alcohol concentration phase. For Nicolas Legendre, from the Organisme de défense et de gestion des rhums traditionnels des Départements d’Outre Mer, “the AOC ‘rum from Martinique’ obeys rules that are closer to the world of wine, and in particular Cognac, than the GI ‘rum from Guadeloupe'”.

Indications Géographiques rhum


The long road of rum

Rum entered the world of appellations late. In the 1960s, Martinique producers wanted to harmonise production and distinguish Martinique rums from other rums sold in France. In 1972, the Professional Association of Agricultural Rum Producers and Bottlers of Martinique (APPERAM) was created with a view to making a formal application for an AOC for molasses and agricultural rums, on the model of Cognac or Armagnac.

A first application was made in 1973. Unfortunately it was rejected. In terms of form, the INAO could not grant an AOC to the overseas territories until 1980. In terms of content, the INAO explained that only agricultural rum could claim the AOC because it alone could express the link between the specificity of the product and the specificity of the terroir. Unfortunately, this would result in agricultural rum capturing the “Martinique” origin, which obviously does not please molasses rum producers.

If this first request fails, the INAO and the Martinique producers are now working together to move forward. Thierry Fabian, a member of the INAO, sums up the rest of the work as follows: “It was necessary for the INAO National Committee’s Commission of Inquiry, which was examining the Martinique rum producers’ request, to discover the world of rum and the ultra-marine universe, and for the rum world to understand the interest in implementing production disciplines and to familiarise itself with the INAO’s way of working. (…)

Major projects necessary for the implementation of the AOC but also highly structuring for the sector were launched: delimitation of parcels, formation of an organoleptic examination panel and construction of a tasting grid, description of the distillation columns, equipping the laboratory of the Centre Technique de la Canne à Sucre (CTCS) with a view to carrying out regular conformity analyses”. In 1996, Martinique’s agricultural rum obtained the AOC.

The seven families game

Obtaining the AOC Martinique meant the loss of the word “Martinique” for sugar refinery rums. In 1992, an AOS was created for the Galion sugar refinery, which continued to produce molasses rum, entitled “Rhum traditionnel de la sucrerie de la Baie du Galion”, which later became a geographical indication.

The other ultra-marine territories abandoned the AOS in their turn in favour of GIs which highlighted their know-how: Rhum de la Guyane, Rhum de la Guadeloupe, Rhum de La Réunion, but also Rhum des Antilles françaises and, more generally, Rhum des départements français d’outre-mer. These seven appellations, two of which straddle several territories, all have their own interest, which Thierry Fabian of the INAO explains as follows: “the AOC Martinique and the GIs rum from the Bay of Galion, rum from Guadeloupe, rum from French Guiana and rum from Reunion can be included in blends within the GI rum from the French overseas departments and, with the exception of rum from French Guiana and Reunion, within the GI rum from the French West Indies”. These seven rum indications and designations therefore allow flexibility for innovation in the world of rum.

Let’s have a taste!

Among the controls carried out within the framework of the AOC or the GIs, what is called an organoleptic control is carried out. The first tasting by experts appointed by the INAO for the future AOC rum took place in 1992.

This jury has grown over the years and tasting sheets have been set up. Marc Sassier recalls that the “specificity of Martinique’s agricultural rum is that it has included this tasting in its rum approval protocol, which means that 100% of the rums produced (…) are tasted blind by the jury. (…)

This phase is important because if you don’t get approval during the tasting, you can’t market the rum under the Martinique appellation, even if you have respected all the other criteria of the Cahier des Charges”.

Marc Sassier
Marc Sassier chairs the Syndicat AOC Rhum de la Martinique.

AOC rums benefit from an initial tasting carried out under the aegis of the Syndicat de l’AOC rhum de la Martinique, between 280 and 300 per year, followed by a second, partial tasting under the aegis of CERTIPAQ, an independent body recognised by the INAO. The rums under GI are directly controlled by this same independent body.
The juries, for the AOC or the GI, are composed of “memory bearers”, i.e. cane and rum producers, professionals in the sector such as traders, technicians or oenologists, and informed consumers. Each person wishing to be a juror receives training.

INAO, Defence Body and Union

In 2014, the Organisme de Défense et de Gestion des rhums traditionnels des Départements d’Outre-Mer sous Indications Géographiques was created to defend, manage and promote the six Geographical Indications for rum. Its main mission is to ensure compliance with the specifications of the Geographical Indications. It then examines and decides on requests for modifications to the specifications and presents these requests, if necessary, to the INAO.

With the help of CERTIPAQ, the ODG verifies the conformity of the processes, installations and productions of new operators in the sector. Above all, the ODG “defends the GI and the corresponding trademark against French or foreign operators who use it without respecting the obligations of the specifications,” explains Nicolas Legendre. The ODG is now the guarantor of the quality, as defined in the specifications, of overseas rums under geographical indication.

For its part, the Syndicat AOC Rhum de la Martinique plays a comparable role, by organising a first tasting of AOC rums. The fight against fraud is essential for Marc Sassier, president of the union: “Our AOC also has to defend itself more and more against counterfeiting and misuse of the term Martinique, just like the great French spirits and wines. The French state then helps us abroad by sharing the costs and settling the administrative problems.”

The INAO plays a crucial role, particularly in regulatory support. In particular, it was very active during the 2009 European reform, which pushed the overseas departments to transform their AOS into GIs. Specifications had to be drawn up that did not exist until then.

The INAO, ODG and Syndicat meet every year to take stock and respond to any requests for changes to the specifications. Thierry Fabian reminds us that “the INAO is attentive to the fact that changes, when they are made necessary, should allow production to be sustained in a sustainable manner. These regulations also respond to the need to take into account sustainable development and social responsibility.

Obviously, climate change, but also the reduction in the use of phytosanitary products or the reduction of the carbon footprint can guide the GDOs to certain changes in the production conditions of their specifications.”

The question of crus

An AOC applied to rum or other spirits meets common criteria, notably those of the delimitation of the production area and the importance of the terroir. This is true for rum, as it is for cognac or armagnac, for example. But unlike rum, these spirits emphasise the notion of “cru”, six for cognac and three for armagnac. This notion designates a particular terroir within an appellation.

Thierry Fabian of the INAO indicates that “the terms “Grand cru”, “Premier cru”, “Cru classé” are strictly regulated. “To be used, “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” would have to be subject to a collective usage defined in the specifications of an AOC and the use of “Cru classé” would presuppose the existence of a historical classification of rums, recognised by regulation.”

And yet, Martinique is home to several micro-terroirs and climates. The AOC specifications list nine sub-terroirs divided into three main areas, namely the North Atlantic, the Caribbean coast and the intermediate zone around the southern and central hills. Marc Sassier notes objectively that “it is possible one day to develop our appellation with new geographical zones (…)

But this subject has not yet been put forward” and he adds “let’s remember that we are not in a vineyard, there is no grafting. It is the variety that is planted directly. In cane planting, only those adapted to local conditions are retained, which makes it a very particular terroir marker.”

There are also micro-terroirs in Guadeloupe, which has however taken a step in this direction, by adding a “Complementary Geographical Denomination” within its GI, namely “Rum of Marie-Galante”. This DGC is not just about the terroir, however, it is necessary to specify that this Guadeloupean island is a limestone island, while the Papillon Island is both limestone and volcanic.

Nicolas Legendre is cautious about this notion applied to Guadeloupe rums: “Dividing Guadeloupe into as many micro-terroirs as there are plots of land suitable for cane cultivation would make no sense and the consumer would quickly get lost. The specifications authorize additional labeling that allows each producer to highlight what he considers to be a particular specificity of his products (…) The ODG must know how to resist the sirens of marketing, without preventing producers from seeking to differentiate themselves from each other.

It is today in reality the multiplication of parcel rums as much in Guadeloupe as in Martinique, which puts forward a particular climate on a precise parcel, but it is only the will of each distillery. If rum could defend its micro-terroirs, the question of clarity for the consumer remains today an important obstacle to take this step.

Mini breviary of acronyms :

AOC: Appellation d’origine contrôlée
IG : Geographical Indication
INAO: National Institute of Origin and Quality
DGC: Complementary Geographical Denomination
ODG: Organisme de Défense et de Gestion (Defense and Management Organization)
AOS : Appellation d’Origine Simple

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