On October 25, Sopexa hosted a debate entitled 'The relevance of French wines to today's consumer'. Moderated by Robert Joseph, of The Sunday Telegraph, the speakers were: David Cobbold, editor of the Wine Review of France; Anne Colombo, a Rhône-based oenologist; Nerida Abbott, a Languedoc-based winemaker; Gérard Basset MW, a sommelier and author; and Joe Wadsack, a wine buyer for Waitrose.

Twenty years ago a debate on this subject would have been unthinkable - of course French wines were relevant. But now? The statistics tell a very different story. French wines used to account for 42% of wines sold in the UK; the figure is now down to 24%.

Increased competition from the New World, in quality and value, has left the one-time behemoth very much on the defensive. The truth behind those statistics is that consumers are losing confidence in French wines. Names like 'Jacob's Creek' or 'California Chardonnay' are more likely to engender trust than are names like 'AC Beaujolais' or 'AC Bordeaux Supérieur'.

Sure, English-language names are easier to pronounce, but what matters is that people know what they're buying when they see those words on a bottle. The same can't be said of French wines. One bottle of AC Bourgogne Rouge is going to taste a lot different from the next bottle of AC Bourgogne Rouge. And, unlike most New World wines, price point doesn't go very far as an indication of quality.

Part of the problem, admitted David Cobbold, is that AC regulations do not indicate quality; they indicate that the producer has followed the letter of the law in producing that wine. But abiding by the law does not equal good winemaking.

The facts are thus: exports of French wines are decreasing to the UK and consumer confidence is falling. If changes aren't made to the system and if some reliable indication of quality isn't brought about, the confidence and sales will continue to drop.

The panellists believe that changes to the AC system are underway, but agree that it will be a 'slow process'. Can France really afford to continue with this laissez-faire approach?