Tuesday, July 1, 2008

They’re going to kill French wine

The president of the Wine & Business Club and host of TV and radio shows for wine-lovers Alain Marty, says the greatest threat to national production of the drink comes from France itself.

You have spoken about a “crisis” in the French wine industry and you feel strongly about some changes in recent decades - like the 1991 Loi Evin
Yes. This law forbids alcohol advertising on television and strictly limits permitted radio broadcasting times and in the written press it is difficult - le Parisien and Les Echos were prosecuted for articles they wrote. Le Parisien had written about Champagne, saying that it was doing well - it wasn't an advert and wasn't paid for, but they were still found guilty.

The court said they should have included a health warning - but that only applies to adverts. Unbelievable.

Amazing that France should want to attack what is one of the things the country is best-known for
Yes, and economically it is very important - last year French wines and spirits had €9.3 billion in export sales [the highest ever].
There are 500,000 people working in wines and spirits. It is our fifth export resource.
They are trying to ruin it - as I said in my book Ils Vont Tuer le Vin Français (They Are Going to Kill French Wine). One thing you have to understand about French wine is there are 2% of French wines that are very profitable and do very well all over the world. I'm worried about the rest.

A recent industry report said Burgundies, Champagne and Cognac were doing very well, but Beaujolais and Languedoc-Roussillon are not
Yes - also a lot of Bordeaux, not the grands crus [vineyards listed in a prestigious categorisation system], they sell very well, but the others suffer. The whole of the South suffers, a small part of the Rhone Valley, a large part of Beaujolais, and Nantes and the Muscadet area.
We end up with two countries for wine - the France of the very rich and the France of the very poor.

Why is there this gap?
For the great wines there is a growing demand, notably from China and Russia. If you've got Petrus, for example, with 3,000 bottles a year - they can't increase the production so the price goes up.

It costs €500/bottle for a great Bordeaux - the prices have gone crazy. Those vineyards are doing very well, but the rest aren't, due to strong international competition.

In Ireland, for example, four years ago France was the biggest source of wine, now it is the fourth - the Californians, Chileans and Australians are before us.

We are not competitive on an international level - 60% of the world's wines are sold at €4. How can you make a good wine at that price, with the VAT, the producer's margin, the distributor's margin, the transport? Employing people is three times more expensive in France than in Chile.

Then there are other problems - for example, there are two kinds of wine: the AOC and the rest. In theory the AOCs are our best wines. In practice, a jury of local vineyard owners gets together, between mates, and one says “you say my wine's good and I'll say yours is good” - that means there are some AOC wines that aren't good. Take Saint-Emilion. They have some of the best wines in the world, and some of the worst.

We need to reform the system. A lot of people are choosing instead to make a vin de table or vin de pays, but which is good and pleases the consumers.
Another thing that's very French is the sin of arrogance - “since it's French wine and I'm making it, it must be good” - which is sometimes the case and sometimes not.

Also, on the commercial side, France has tended to focus on selling to easy markets and didn't notice that there were competitors coming up from the New World, making wines that are not bad, and are cheap, and with a consistent taste. It is going to be very hard for France to compete with the lowest-priced wines.

I think we need to focus more on premium products - and make sure they are always good. Sometimes winemakers prefer not to have the AOC so as to be able to put the names of grape varieties on the bottle. Wine is becoming more popular as an aperitif and people ask for a glass of Chardonnay, or Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. We weren't allowed to do it for the AOCs.

I can understand the thinking for the great wines, but for ordinary wines, it is wrong.

However we have recently been allowed to do it - 10 years too late. It's the same for wood chips - if you have a young, rather acidic, wine, with wood chips the Australians and Chilians and Californians give the wine a smoothness. We were strictly forbidden to do it for all wines.

Now, we have been allowed to do it - just as the fashion for this taste is ending. That shows how cumbersome the French system can be. Take the degree of alcohol - it's going up because of global warming. Wines were 11 or 12 degrees, now they are going up to 14, 15, 16.

The consumer will typically think a wine is better at 12 degrees than 14 - although it's not necessarily true. In the south some vineyard owners are developing a process for taking out alcohol. They are allowed to do it, but the regulating authorities check on them so closely that they have almost stopped it.

We have difficulty accepting innovation. For the great wines, I think we need to retain precise rules - but for the others complete liberty. It shocks me when the French have to ask Europe for subsidies because they can't sell their wine - even if it's part of our heritage. If some vines have to be pulled up, so be it.

It doesn't mean more can't be planted again one day. I would say we should give unsuccessful vineyard owners money to change careers rather than paying them to make bad wine.

Are there non-French wines that you like?
Certainly. I did a tasting recently with some great mature French and American wines and frankly the American ones were considered as good as the French, by a jury of French people.

Fortunately all our best wines are very expensive, as are theirs - well, the American ones are 20% cheaper, but whether you are talking €500 or €400, it's still a lot.

However at the bottom end, the difference between €3.50 or €4 is important. So, yes, you get good wines elsewhere - fortunately, because the global wine market is growing by 5 -10% a year, most notably in America, which is the world's biggest market in value of wine consumed.

Thanks to their pleasant, easy-to-drink wines, they are persuading people to change from beer. China, India and Russia all have growing demand. For the moment, France still drinks the most, even though consumption has halved in 30 years. On average we drink 55 litres per inhabitant per year, including the 40% who drink none.

A sommelier told me French people often believe they are wine experts just because they are French, whereas the British are more willing to learn.
There are two countries which are more knowledgeable about wine than us - Britain and Belgium. Many British people are good at choosing wines carefully, they really know their stuff.
Fortunately we have people who know wine well too, but a lot think they have a God-given knowledge when really they know nothing.
However that's changing and wine is fashionable.

Have you tried any British wines?
Yes, there are 200 English vineyards, and with global warming Britain may become very acceptable for wine production in 10 years - some champagne houses are thinking of investing there. The whites and sparkling wines are good. We can make a comparison with rugby and wine - the same people who annoy us in rugby are the ones who annoy us with their wine - England, New Zealand, Argentina and Australia.

Do you think Britons buying vineyards sometimes have rose-tinted expectations?
Sometimes they have the wrong idea at first - a vineyard is a complicated business, not a country house with a couple of vines instead of a lawn.
However I am favourable towards non-French people buying vineyards.

A lot sell after a few years - especially those without a lot of money, because it's expensive to run a vineyard - but many people come with good ideas and are meticulous, they learn the business and are really interested in what they are doing. I think that's great.

Can a bottle of wine really be worth €500?
When you get to those prices, it's a status symbol, a brand.
Whether it's good or not, is not the point. You wouldn't cut up a Louis Vuitton bag to see if it's made of good quality leather - for a Mouton Rothschild, a Latour, a Lafitte, it's the same.

But does it really taste better than one at, say €50?
No. This month I'm bringing out an annual wine guide - the first one written by consumers, ordinary wine lovers, who email me their scores - Le Guide des Grands Amateurs des Vins. I'd like to duplicate it around the world, notably in England.

I've got 250 tasters and had 1,000 wines scored. The famous American wine expert Robert Parker comes up with surprising descriptions like comparing the taste to ketchup. In the same way, each taster can give a personal view of what the wine tastes like to them, and whether they find it good or not. On the panel there are 40% non-French who live in France, including some English people.

What is your favourite wine?
I adore Côtes Rôties from the Rhône Valley - about 10 years old - and Saint-Estèphe from Bordeaux, especially Château Phélan-Ségur.
In whites, I like Collioures [Languedoc-Roussillon]. I'm not a big rosé fan. OK, I think Tavels are good. With fish or as an aperitif, rosé is fine. But I don't have an emotional attachment to it. It's a wine to drink with your mates - to spend about €10 on tops. However you can be surprised. I tried an expensive one recently - a Château d' Esclans which costs €60 the bottle - which I admit was very good.

What about wines that are good value for money?
Chinons blancs from the Loire, at about €5-6, are excellent. For reds - Côtes du Roussillon. For Bordeaux, the Côtes de Bourg or Côtes de Blaye are about €8-9.

You started your first business at 19?
Yes, I went to China for three years and secured the exclusive right to import certain French wines, spirits and perfumes. It was a great experience that taught me a lot. I came back in 1990. I launched the Wine & business Club in 1991.

Today I have 2,000 members in [three clubs in] Paris and it's Europe's leading network of wine-loving business leaders. In the Paris clubs it is necessary to be a company owner, but in my four provincial clubs we also have professionals.

They have to be sponsored to join and then they pay a subscription of €5,000 or €10,000 a year plus VAT [the first includes two places per monthly event, the second up to five]. In central Paris we meet at the Bristol and Pavilion Ledoyen, which have two and three Michelin stars respectively. I insist on tutoiement. [The practice of using the informal 'tu' to address each other].

Is that practice increasing in business circles?
It's limited, but it breaks down barriers. You don't want to share a bottle of wine while continuing to call each other “vous.”
Wine is about conviviality and sharing, going beyond the barrier of the “vous.”

And what is the wine element in the evenings?
We start with an economics talk. Then we have three vineyard owners and we spend an hour tasting wines with them.

Then there's a debate with two business guests before the meal where we have five dishes, with two wines with each, and each time a vineyard owner talks about the wines.
Philippe Faure-Brac, the world's best sommelier, hosts the wine side, with the vineyard owners. I host the business side.

You're talking about the Paris evenings?
Yes, the clubs at Reims, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse are run by their own teams according to the same format.

I want to create 20 clubs in France by the end of 2009. I also want to open ones in Luxembourg, London [in 2009] Geneva, Brussels and why not Monaco? I have 12 people working for the business and we have a turnover of €2.8 million.

You also present radio and TV programmes
There was no programme about wine - people were worried about the advertising rules. After I wrote my book about wine, the boss of BFM said to me “why don't we launch one together?” In Vino BFM is an hour of wine news and discussions on Saturdays and repeated on Sundays. I have just launched the same concept on BFM television.
With these two ventures up-and-running I feel like I have done two important things for French wine.

What are your feelings about the future?
For those making top quality wines and selling them all over the world, it will be great. Some vineyards will go out of business, but I am optimistic because new ones will take their place, with new methods, and will develop the “made in France” label across the world, because it really gives you a good foot in the door.

We're in a period of change, but we have wonderful wine-producing territories, with such diversity that we can produce all the kinds of wine that are found around the world.