Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Wine wars: the French strike back

TALK to France’s wine-lovers and makers and it won’t take long — sometimes even before the third glass — until they start getting misty-eyed and talking, well, Frenchly, about things such as terroir — the mysterious quality of the land where grapes are grown, and which is said to imbue a wine with its je ne sais quoi.

That all-pervading national obsession is one of the main reasons for the extensive reverberations around the wine world following the French’s decision to change the way their wine is labelled.

On the surface, the changes are minor: where previously they had only the names of where the wine was made, labels will follow the lead of New World wines and may include the grape variety as well as chateau, region and year.


Restrictions on where grapes can be grown, what grapes can be blended, and in what quantities they can be grown will be lifted. Gewurztraminer, for example, could now be grown in Languedoc or even Bordeaux and not just Alsace. A chardonnay from one region can be mixed with a chenin from another.

And for the first time, the use of new world additives such as extra tannins and woodchips are now permitted. All such wines will fall under a new Vignobles de France category. It might not seem like much to those used to sipping on wines from California or New Zealand, but the seriousness with which wine-making is taken in France can be gleaned from the fact that the move had to be approved by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his cabinet.

Behind these changes lurks an economic imperative. After years of resting on their laurels, French wine-makers have admitted that they have to do something about new world wines taking such a hefty slice of the growing global market.


French wine accounts for 35 per cent of European production, and reigns supreme at the highest levels, but it is worth remembering that 99 per cent of wines bought globally cost less than £7.50. At that level, the French lag behind the Australians and Californians.

Consumers of French wine have long had to feel their way towards a purchase based solely on labels displaying obscure villages and, if lucky, dates; such were the guidelines under the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. Even if a wine was classed in the lower-grade, sub-AOC Vin de Table category, no mention of grape was permitted.

It’s a system that became its own worst enemy. David Campbell, who founded the best-selling Hachette Guide To Wines books and now runs wine website vineyardsdirect. com, says: “The French have had a problem, because unless you’re of a certain age or have taken a lot of trouble, you actually can’t read a French wine label. New world wines have understood about branding and the importance of marketing grape varieties.”

The addition of brightly coloured animals and comical names to labels hasn’t hurt either. So it’s a long-overdue change, and could be the shot in the arm that the French wine industry needed.

Nicolas Kowalski, buyer at London Bridge wine emporium Vinopolis, says, “I see this as a natural evolution. I don’t think it will be harmful; rather it will bring quality upwards. Top vineyards will remain, AOC might be tougher to obtain and therefore quality will be up.”


Vinopolis has recently taken on one of the first producers to use the new system, Chamarre, which sells Loire-sourced grapes in wines from £5.99 and in bottles with simple, snazzy labels. Kowalski sees a lot of untapped potential in France, particularly in vineyards currently given over to AOC wines.

“The AOC system is a great invention but should be a lot more dynamic, and allow people to experiment with new types of vines/techniques on their land if the producer chooses to do so,” he says. The so-called “heritage” vineyards are likely to be safe since the wines they produce generate very good revenues for the producers, but other land can now be freed up for other more suitable grapes.


The new system could give positive and tangible effects across the French wineproducing world, because the new rules mean more creativity and flexibility, which will help to exploit the potential of available grapes.

For the first time, wine-makers will be able to react to trends and fashions in wine: they can signal to drinkers which grape a wine is made from. Producers can give customers what they want.

“Profit should soar since the producers should be able to get more for their grapes on the new system without having to be labelled Vin de Table,” says Kowalski. “However this will very much depend on how well the French take up this opportunity and use dynamic marketing to promote these new wines.”

In other words, whether pride or profit takes precedence. Watch this space.


French wines will now fall into one of three categories: Vignobles de France (Wines of France); IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee or Protected Geographical Region), which corresponds to existing Vin de Pays; and AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee) which tallies with the old AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee).
Labels will have the name of the grape and the year it was produced.
Growers can now plant any type of vine anywhere in France – Gewurztraminer will no longer be restricted to Alsace, for example – and producers can now put the name of the grape on the label.
Blended wines from different regions of France will be available for the first time.
Producers will be able to use oak chips and tannins in their winemaking.
The flexibility will allow producers to react more easily to market trends.