Pernod Ricards wine portfolio is dominated by New Zealands Brancott Estate, Spains Campo Viejo and Australias Jacobs Creek

Pernod Ricard's wine portfolio is dominated by New Zealand's Brancott Estate, Spain's Campo Viejo and Australia's Jacob's Creek

It's a question that has been asked a thousand times. But, Chris Losh is nothing if not persistent, especially at a time when other multi-category companies are giving wine the big heave-ho.

In the 1990s and early-2000s, there was no shortage of massive sales and testosterone-fuelled take-overs in the wine world. A time of bold business deals and eyebrow-raising strategies, wine was an industry waist-deep in both money and opportunity.

Since the great banking disaster of 2007/8, however, it's been a different story. Wine companies have tended to return to core regional strengths, while non-wine companies have been queuing up to leave the sector altogether.

For over ten years, what we have been seeing is selected pickings over dead - or dying - dreams rather than wholesale swallowings; an industry that – in corporate terms – has been more vulture than shark.

The stand-out deal has been Treasury Wine Estates' snapping up of Diageo's wine business last year for US$552m. Six years ago, Concha y Toro acquired Fetzer from Brown Forman, with all the thrill and excitement of a dowager buying a tin of shortbread, while Constellation Brands' high-tailing it out of Australian wine (as well as South Africa and the UK), thrusting Hardy's et al into the waiting arms of private equity group CHAMP, resembled nothing so much as an unmarried teenage mother leaving her baby on the steps of the vicarage.

In a world where spirits companies are increasingly heading back to their roots, Pernod Ricard's continued wine presence stands out. And, as the last big booze beast still prowling the still-wine jungle since the Diageo/Treasury deal two years ago, it's perhaps not unreasonable to wonder 'when' rather than 'if' the French group will sell off its still wine portfolio.

Whenever I mention this to anyone at Pernod, they roll their eyes and make "it's not going to happen" noises. And, for sure, while the company has not been shy about getting rid of the extremities of its portfolio it's never really hinted that any (or all) of its wine brands are for sale.

Watching urbane, Sorbonne-educated Frenchmen having to force down Jacob's Creek at Pernod Ricard's Christmas lunch is the high point of my year

Some of the senior execs, I'm sure, secretly regret this. Watching urbane, Sorbonne-educated Frenchmen having to force down Jacob's Creek at the company's Christmas lunch is the high point of my year.

Pernod's recent year-end figures, however, are revealing. For three of the company's four biggest-selling spirits brands - Absolut, Ballantine's and Chivas Regal - volume growth outstripped value, suggesting there's an element of price-cutting in a quest for market share.

While this might be a viable model for spirits it's proved a Pyrrhic solution in the world of wine, where big-volume brands nowadays are measuring their profit per bottle in cents rather than dollars.

Working on big volumes and slim margins leaves companies vulnerable to outside influences. A 10% or 15% shift in ForEx rates can wipe out margins at a stroke, and leave brand-owners with the 'rock and a hard place' decision of either nixing their profit or raising prices and seeing volumes drop.

The tumble of Sterling following the UK's Brexit vote last year, for instance, has had a big impact (-7%) on Australian wine sales in the country's biggest export market. And, it's probably fair to say that owning a powerhouse brand like Jacob's Creek looks less of a compelling proposition now than it did when European wine markets were in double-digit growth 20 years ago; the reason, of course, why Diageo, Brown Forman, Kirin et al have all got out.

If we work on the assumption that all the evidence suggests that wine, increasingly, is for wine specialists, I'd imagine that, as competitor after competitor exits the category, it would be illogical to assume that there have not been discussions in Paris about the possibility and desirability of Pernod selling off its big wine brands, even if they would never admit as much.

The question at the moment, however, is perhaps not so much whether Pernod would want to move on their wine brands, but who would buy them. Unless I'm missing something, I can see only two companies who would be even half-way interested: Treasury and Accolade Wines.

The former seems to be busy digesting its purchase of Diageo's wines, so is probably out of the equation for a good few years yet. That said, the group's feisty CEO, Mike Clarke, has mentioned that he'd consider splitting the business into two parts - luxury and commercial - so he's clearly not averse to a bit of radical thinking.

Commercially, Accolade, which came into being through CHAMP's forementioned Constellation play - looks the more likely. The company has bought steadily over the last few years, adding the likes of Geyser Peak, Mud House, Grant Burge and Anakena to an already sizable portfolio – as well as Lion Nathan's impressive raft of upper-end Aussie wines, Fine Wine Partners.

Accolade's self-stated aim is to move towards more premium brands, which would fit squarely with Pernod wine brands. Indeed, having sold off its stake in UK on-premise distributor Matthew Clark for GBP200m (then-US$300m) two years ago, the company should still have some cash in the bank.

Plus, earlier this year, Accolade abandoned a prospective IPO, in order to enhance its "attractiveness to investors". Beefing up its performance in China and getting a huge new bottling plant on stream are a big part of that, but three of the biggest brands from Spain, Australia and New Zealand might not exactly hurt either...

It shouldn't be too hard to create a point of difference between Mud House and Brancott Estate - I know which one I'd rather own - and Spain's biggest brand, Campo Viejo, would surely be a good addition, even if it doesn't fit with Accolade's stated strategy of being the number one specialist New World company. Separating Jacob's Creek from Hardy's would be a practical and political minefield, though you could argue that if anyone can do it, Accolade can.

It's possible, in other words, but not without complications.

Of course, there's a world of difference for CHAMP between cherry-picking single, mid-sized wineries like Anakena and Grant Burge or lifting products from the likes of Kirin, who clearly had no idea what to do with them, and taking on big-name brands from an operator who has hitherto shown no sign of selling.

Pernod's Gallic stubbornness is part of its DNA, so it's quite possible that even though all around the company are selling up and moving out of wine, they'll still be peddling Rioja, Marlborough Sauvignon and Aussie Shiraz in ten years' time.

I'm not sure what the shareholders would make of it, but if nothing else, it will continue to make their Christmas parties interesting.