Sunday, June 1, 2008

France relaxes its old wine rules to fight off New World challenge

Traditional methods have stood France in good stead for centuries but it now exports fewer bottles than Italy and Spain and is losing ground to Australia

After long scorning the international appetite for “vulgar” wine, France joined the fray yesterday and allowed growers to make and market their product in the fruity fashion of the New World.

Wood chips, added tannin and other “foreign” techniques will be tolerated in a new category of mid-quality wine that will be defined by grape variety rather than origin.

In a heresy for traditionalists this means, for example, that you may grow gewurtztramminer, the classic Alsace white, anywhere in France and sell it as gewurtztramminer in the new Wine of France category.

Under the law the main label on a bottle will identify the wine as merlot, cabernet, grenache, chardonnay or other variety, as well as mentioning its vintage.

President Sarkozy and his Cabinet approved the measures as part of a five-year plan to win back market share from the all-conquering Californian and southern hemisphere wines. With its antiquated classification and concentration on the mystique of le terroir — the soil and traditions of the vineyard — France has lost out in the past 15 years as world consumption has risen.

The New World has won drinkers over with what the French regard as simple, standardised fruit-forward wines with brand names. Supermarket shoppers prefer labels with Australian marsupials to Appellation d'origine contrôlée from obscure villages with six syllables. “French wine is complicated and often little understood,” the Agriculture Ministry said.

While it might raise some purist eyebrows the scheme has caused little offence. “I have faith in the savoir faire of French winemakers,” said Jean Claude Ruet, chief sommelier at the Paris Ritz hotel. “We will not fall as low as the Americans, who make vin rosé that is sugary and fizzy like soda.”

France, once the world's wine reference, now exports fewer bottles than Italy and Spain. It was overtaken by Australia in the British market three years ago. Thanks to the high-quality products of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, France still dominates the €17.4 billion (£14 billion) market in value, with 35 per cent compared with 25 per cent for the New World. The fight is now on for new wine drinkers in India and China.

The French industry generally approved the measures, which have been drawn up in the past two years.

Producers insisted that the system aims to boost “entry-level” wines while keeping old restrictions on the quality AOC category. “It's a way of giving new consumers a taste for wine,” Mr Ruet said. He was doubtful however about the merits of adding oak shavings to wine made in steel vats to add a woody flavour.

Jerome Agostini, director of the National Committee of the Wine Professions, said: “Young generations of consumers need simpler wines that are easy to drink, sweet and aromatised. You cannot condemn practices like wood chips because we have to fight with the same weapons.”

The Wine of France is being created along with two other categories. The second one will correspond to a specific area and the third will cover the AOC appellation, of which there are 457.

Many critics say that the revered 75-year-old AOC system is in dire need of reform. In September experts commissioned by Que Choisir, the leading consumer organisation, decided that one third of AOC wines should be stripped of their appellations. “The AOC label is no longer a guarantee of quality or a link to terroir,” it said.

Sections of the French industry have already been adopting New World methods to fight back. The Languedoc region of the Mediterranean has been particularly successful, importing New World vintners and playing up grape varieties.

Some have gone as far as inventing “critter labels” to compete with Australia's Yellow Tail and assorted other parrots and wallabies. These include Rhôning Stones and Bois-Moi (Drink Me). A French Languedoc wine sold 1.3 million bottles to Australia last year under the brand of Arrogant Frog.

Charles Bremner & Marie Tourres
Paris, France


There is no defense of the soft drinks masquerading as wine though the new world. Where is the reverence for tradition? I will take intrigueing AOC wines over the commercial beverage of the new world any day of the week. It is interesting that even with the dollar decline the values come from the EU

Brian, Bellingham,

The French wine industry has been coming up against the same problem that we all feel encroaching upon us and it is the problem of globalization. Traditional aspects of culture from terroire driven wine production to American driving habits are being crushed by the boom of global "sameness". Too bad

Carl, West Hempstead, NY, USA

The french will need to do alot more than name the grape variety. They export poor quality but expensive wines. And are the wines in France really any better?
For £5-£7 in the supermarket you can get a very nice aussie, NZ, US, S African, spanish, italian, argentinian bottle, or ropey french plonk.

Jim, Liverpool,

The AOC system isn't broken, nor is this new category needed. Someone needs to make wine for smart people; traditionally, it has been the French. Let those countries without a wine and food heritage facilitate the dumbing down of the wine drinker, but let France remain France!

Bill Adams, Westfield, USA

Here! Here! It's great that France is finally deciding to compete. Everyone wins with competition.

Let's hope that French winemakers are a bit more plugged in to reality than Monsieur Ruet, the Paris Ritz sommelier who thinks Americans only make pink, fizzy roses.

Pete, Dallas, TX, US

All the so called New world wine branded as Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot and so on are of mediocre quality at best. It is sad in a way that to accomodate the vuglus who think they know better we have to lower the quality of our wine. The only good thing is that those wines will be only for exportation.

Jean , Dublin, Ireland

This looks promising for the French. I do however recall a tasting of French and American wines in 1976 (and 2006) that perhaps Chief Sommelier Ruet has dismissed.

Eric C, Atlanta, USA

As a traditionalist, I find AOC intriguing and comforting. However, this sounds like a good idea for the average consumer who does not have the time or interest to study AOC. I just hope that French pride in their wines will not allow this to deteriorate AOC.

Jim, Scottsdale, USA

OK,OK , the new world wine does produce a tastier mid-range wine than France. BUT, their rosé is lamenable. Try a really cheap rosé fruité from provence, straight from the fridge. I will regret telling you anglo-saxons this but Ragusse from the Aix-en-Provence region takes some beating.

Paul Cadier, Viens, France

Much French wine is non-copetitive (over-priced), and they have a naughty habit of "mis-labeling" their wine from time to time. With Australian and California wine you know what you are getting, and you get what you have paid for.

Glenorchy, Perthshire, Scotland

If it needs the President of France to approve the production of wine based on grape variety, rather than geography, there is little hope for the future of French wine.

Bob Lindo, Camel Valley, Cornwall, UK

About time too !
I only hope they now become honest too, dishonesty of past labeling was well known.
This was the only way to get trust back.
Let's see if the French are up to it, any modern methods I have ever suggested [ in other areas ] has always been greeted with , 'this is the French way', !

maggie millington, brittany, france

Ah yes, nothing like good old implacable market forces to force people to think in new ways and try new things.

Samuel Young, Paris, France

Sour grapes from the USA? Well someone had to say it!

Peter, Sydney, Australia

It seems like a bit of a tempest in a teapot over something that is nothing but spoiled grapejuice.

Dan, Tulsa, USA