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Wine: Vignobles de France malgre les ifs-and-buts

  • February 11th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

wine-pic-10.jpgArgument continues within the French wine market over the value, even need for the generic marketing designation, “Vignobles de France”, but it looks to be the makings of an earnest counter-attack against “New World” incursions.

Changes in the stringent regulatory regime have now enabled French wine makers to make a product from certain grape varieties, drawn from a number of regions, and designate the choice on the label, e.g. as cabernet sauvignon – plus other information about the background, content and fabrication.

They have followed the so-called New World, like Australia, California or Chile, in some other ways, permitting more flexibility in production processes; notably admitting the use of wood shavings to simulate an oak quality – actually not so much in favour with consumers in the New World today.

The liberalisation of techniques will be permitted for the many agreeable table wines
produced in the regions, the vins de pays, and even, on an experimental basis, within the higher category, AOC – appellation controlee.

A key aspect of the change is that a new category of French wine is going to market, “Vignobles de France”, intended to fill the dead zone between quality and dross in that country’s output.

It is aimed directly at world export markets, as a competitor for both the New World and other European exporters especially Spain.

The aim is to let wine buyers know what to expect when they make a purchase, and to deliver a reliable quality – like New World products sent out to tastings, wine shops and supermarkets around the world.

The French wine industry’s own statistics show why the change has been permitted to happen.

An investigation quoted in Le Monde (1.2.07) shows that consumption of wine within France itself is set to drop by 20% in the ten years to 2010, against a gain of 9.15% worldwide – and placing French consumption second after the United States.

That would signal the need for an export drive, but here the figures have also been forbidding: Between 2001-2005 France was the only exporter to suffer a loss of sales, down by 12.4%, a period when Spanish value of exports rose by 40%, and Australian by 64%.

One keen observer of trends, Charles van Havre from Belgium’s Kreglinger Wine Estates, (with vineyards in Tasmania and on the South Australian Limestone Coast), says the French industry had no choice but to make the change.

“The New World producers tell people what they are drinking, on the label.

“It is interesting and they certainly want to know, so now the French are following it.

“I would not say that the ‘Big Wines’ will ever adopt this, as the quality is so high, the market is discriminating and they are so well known, there will be no need.

“But for the wider market they had to, and some of their leading wine producers and wine makers have now agreed that people want to know what they are drinking and want to learn about it”.

Some main players in France remain restless about the break with the binding “chateaux” system which has served them well, building mystique and in the past actually cultivating demand through restrictions on output.

Wine carrying a certain label would identify it with a certain geographical terrain; it had to come from there, and knowledgeable consumers, of whom there were many, would themselves know a lot about what was in the bottle: knowing the climate, the soil, the place, the reputation, past experience, having information about the year of vintage.

An AOC classification has been a first imprimatur of general good quality, representing only about 15% of French wine, and subject to legal restraints on quantity, to the extent that in a year of high volume production of grapes, not all of the crop will be permitted for use in the prime product.

The problem has become that those sorts of guarantees are not enough for the growing armies of wine consumers looking for known quality, and known characteristics, at a good price.

Wine producers in particular in France have been advancing some ifs and buts, understandably not so adaptable to change as specialised makers and merchants.

Le Languedoc-Roussillon, the largest French exporter, is quoted by Le Monde as being concerned the new Vignobles de France will only be used to reduce surpluses of AOC, “cannabilising” market share overseas with a cheaper product.

Others have complained that the change comes just as a kind of victory is coming into sight, with the New World producers, having made their markets, now beginning to copy the “Old World” attachment to regional reputations and specialised knowledge.,

An example was given of the move from “Californian” designations, to 96 designations of local “vins de pays” from within that State.

One industry leader spelt out a balanced policy for coming times:

Permit the French in industry to engage the New World on mass markets, but keep the option of trading in unique products, from unique locations: “Nos terroirs sont un atout difficilement copiable” (Our soil is an asset very difficult to copy).

MEANTIME, industry and official sources have started talking about a further six months delay, at least in sealing the long spoken-of wine agreement between Australia and the European Union.

It comes as the EU is itself revising its system for the wine industry, in the context of a sweeping general review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

EU-wide requirements on national producers and sellers have been fairly limited, e.g. with some concentration on disclosing chemical contents, like sulphides as an inhibitor of acidisation.
However the two-way deal with Australia will mean more detailed disclosure, including a certification that the name of a seller does not clash with that of competitors in either area.

It appears some of the European national authorities have picked up on this and have wanted it checked through, country- by-country: twenty-seven in all.

The closed-doors negotiation of this agreement has been a contorted step-by-step affair to date, marked by some disingenuous lobbying, at least removing old problems, e.g. over regional identifiers starting with “champagne”.

Reference: Vin: qui fault-il copier? (Wine, who’s got to copy who?), Le Monde, Paris, 1.2.07, p 31

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