Earlier this month I allowed myself to be invited along to the presentation dinner of the Decanter World Wine Awards. It was the usual mix of entertaining and excruciating: a good chance to catch up with a lot of colleagues, contacts, etc beforehand, followed by several hours of unutterable tedium as award after award was handed out to a backdrop of god-awful food.

Does anyone, I wonder, really get anything out of these big black tie dinners? Certainly not the poor winemakers who have to go up and collect their awards and look - invariably - like embarrassed eight-year-olds forced to put on a tutu and perform ballet in front of the school. Not the audience either, judging by the increasingly catatonic atmosphere as the evening wore on.

Perhaps it's me, but maybe the wine trade isn't that excited by finding out who won the 'Slovenian Sweet wine over GBP10' category.

And no, I didn't make that up.

For all that it doesn't make great theatre, Decanter's Wine Awards is a big success. With over 10,000 entries, I'm guessing that it is now the biggest wine competition in the world, and that means that its results should be taken seriously as a barometer of what's hot and what's not in the global vineyard.

And as the evening wore on, I found myself increasingly wondering what on earth had happened to the Europeans. The winners' stage seemed to find itself semi-permanently peopled by Kiwis, Aussies and Greeks (!), yet French, Spanish and Italians were, for the most part, conspicuous by their absence.

No great surprises, perhaps, that the Old World didn't exactly set the heather alight in categories like 'Single Varietal under GBP10', which has 'New World winner' written all over it.

But it was striking to me that, with the exception of fizz - where Charles Heidsieck took practically every gong going - the French, in particular, rarely seemed to pick up the top awards, even in areas where you would expect them to dominate. 'Red Bordeaux Varietal Over GBP10', for instance, was won not by a cru classé claret but a winery from Margaret River.

Ten years ago, I was editing Wine Magazine, which ran the (also huge) International Wine Challenge. The sight of an Aussie whupping the Bordelais in such a blue chip category was the kind of thing that would have had us holding the front page.

Now it's a sign of how far France's star has waned (and the New World has waxed) that nobody at the dinner batted an eyelid. Possibly because, in some cases, they were both already shut.

These are, to be sure, tough times to be in the French wine industry. Overproduction remains endemic, the politics and bureaucracy stifling. And while administrators fiddle, sales go up in flames. The Federation of French Exporters of Wine and Spirits claimed last month that exports are down by 25% in value for the first half of 2009, compared to the previous year.

Nor is this purely a recession-driven problem. Recently I was talking to a representative of Bordeaux's generic body, the CIVB, who admitted that the region had practically 'lost' the restaurant trade below cru classé level, and was hatching an ambitious plan to recapture the generation of restaurateurs and customers for whom Bordeaux simply doesn't register.

If you had suggested in the early 1990s that 20 years later Bordeaux would be practically non-existent on wine lists below $100 you would have been laughed out of town. Now, the only ones laughing are the Chileans, South Africans et al who've filled the 'good value Cab/Merlot' slot with great alacrity.

With one or two exceptions, it's a story that's repeated across Europe: regions that might like to see themselves as indispensable are increasingly discovering that the punters are perfectly happy to live without them.

And yet there is hope for Europe. A few years ago I set up a far smaller wine competition for Imbibe magazine in the UK. It was aimed purely at the on-trade, featuring wines that were not on sale in the high street and, to enhance the on-trade credentials, was judged solely by sommeliers.

With supermarkets out of the equation, this was a vinous battle that was taking place squarely on Europe's home turf. And while there have been a fair few disappointments from big-name regions, there have also been plenty of amazing French and European wines, often at knock-down prices, that have had the restaurateurs cooing into their tasting glasses, often using words like 'character', 'balance' and 'food-friendliness'.

These are not the kind of wines that are going to turn around double-digit volume declines and push back the New World in multiple chains. But they could, at least, shore up Europe's defences in the restaurant arena, which at a time when good news is in short supply, would, at least, be something.

The Slovenians, I should imagine, are quaking in their boots...