Analysis

French wines in crisis

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A catalogue of woes currently besets the French wine industry. While over-production and falling prices are the headline causes, Stuart Todd asserts that the problems go deeper and suggests French wine producers still remain unprepared to opt for tough radical solutions.

Surplus stocks and plummeting prices, over-production and the uprooting of vines, traders going bust or forced to sell up, a parliamentary report on the future of the industry and emergency talks between the trade and the government. There is no doubting that the French wine sector, perhaps with the exception of Champagne, is going through one of the roughest patches in its recent history.

Even the brilliance of last year's harvest, in terms of its exceptional quality - due to excellent climatic conditions - has been dimmed by the bleak prospect of producers and traders being unable to absorb what will be a significantly bigger crop this year.

It is a far cry from the euphoric days surrounding the 2000 vintage when the novelty value generated by the new century boosted demand and led to a surge in prices, particularly for the best Bordeaux, raised to a level described at the time as "outrageous."

Now the winemaking "aristocrats" along with growers in other French regions, are starting to feel the pinch. Between 500 to 1,000 Bordeaux winegrowers are said to be in financial difficulty. The wholesale price of Bordeaux's standard AOC red has fallen by almost half in the last three years.

Meanwhile, the grim news continues for France's wine exports, down by 7% in value terms and 4.6% in volume in the first quarter of the year against the same period in 2003. Over the past decade, French wines have lost 10% of their market share in principal outlets such as the UK, Germany and Canada to the benefit of Southern Hemisphere producers such as Argentina, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

It is tempting to look for easy excuses to explain the decline in the popularity of French wines and these are readily on hand. For example, some sections of the trade point to the government's crackdown on drinking and driving as discouraging consumption and that a controversial law banning alcohol advertising has left French wines in the marketing shade. Some relief may be on the way on the ad front with a recent parliamentary report recommending that wine should be exempt from such a ban and advocating that moderate wine drinking can be promoted without compromising on consumer protection.

But even the most partisan of French winegrowers would probably accept that these factors are only peripheral to the industry's woes which are deep-rooted and have gone unaddressed for too long.

Certainly, the Bordeaux growers can't be accused of resting on their laurels in hope of better times. Its trade body, the CIVB, led by its newly-elected president, Christian Delpeuch, is proposing the unprecedented step of uprooting hundreds of hectares of vineyards currently disused or the subject of inheritance wrangles to help pull the region out of the crisis.

As the wine industry is France's fifth biggest exporter, generating annual trade revenues €5.8 billion, and a huge employer, it is not surprising to find that the government is a prime mover behind the reform measures designed to put it back on its feet.

However, the government's hands are tied to some degree in that it must reconcile reform, which is essentially aimed at stimulating wine sales, with the anti-alcohol abuse and road safety lobbies.

One measure in the pipeline is that from 2006 Bordeaux and Beaujolais winemakers, who produce almost exclusively AOC wines, will be able to add the name of the grape variety to Vin de Pays labels. Agriculture minister, Herve Gaymard, said the measure would "contribute to clarifying and simplifying the presentation of French wines on international markets."

The measure arguably hits the nail on the head. The peculiarity and sheer complexity of the French wine system is at the heart of its current plight and one increasingly at odds with evolving world markets trends and in particular, the hugely successful New World model based on an easily identifiable, value-for-money products.

Simplification is the key but the basis of the system, France's "labels of excellence," the AOCs (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) - all 467 of them! - embody the contrary, a complex universe, only accessible to the initiated and which often leaves the average wine consumer mystified and perplexed. Compare this to the market-driven approach of the New World trade who plant the best varieties in vast areas, attract the best wine-tasters and call in the marketing men who have convinced producers that a good wine is one consumers stick with.

No one would suggest that simply by copying their New World counterparts, the French wine sector will be able to stop the rot. Tradition, savoir-faire and terroir remain its prize assets and the major task consists in adapting these to a changing market and new customer demands.

In an ultra-conservative, almost rarefied environment, change is likely to be slow and faltering rather than of the "root and branch" variety. The wake-up call will only be heeded in some French vineyards when domestic consumers, who have until now remained largely faithful to home-grown wines, turn their attention to what's on offer further afield but by then it will be too late.


Sectors: Wine

Companies: Vin de Pays

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