Monday comment

Whining about wine

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: French wine, Terroir

France is a fading power in the world of wine. And will continue to
be, until it turns its face towards a globe where consumers buy
what they know.

The country still controls nearly a fifth of world wine exports, but sits joint second with Spain and behind world-leader Italy. Moreover, French wine has lost prime position toAustralia in its largest export market, the UK.

Yet, instead of sounding alarm bells, France's faltering market position has been a sideshow beside the spasms of an industry that seems unable to match the concept ofproduction to the necessity of selling.

In 2004, French wine production rose by a staggering 23 per cent, reversing almost all declines in output achieved in the previous three years.

Subsequent pleas from Bordeaux vintners for EU funds to distil 'appellation contrôlée' (AOC) wine into undrinkable, industrial alcohol, pushed France straight back onto thecrisis funds that had supported the industry for 20 years, until 2002.

And nor did the costs end there. With over-production endemic, struggling and indebted vintners have staged increasingly violent protests this year over the multitude of pressureson their industry.

The government has duly responded by flinging money and tear gas the other way. Yet only €7m out of its €140m aid package will go towards marketing French wine abroad. Bycontrast, California's Gallo - now operating in France's Languedoc region - plans to spend €3.8m marketing one French brand alone in 2005.

More importantly, the French wine industry is built upon a system that enforces unknowns onto foreign consumers, with French-language labels aided by a quality control system thatcomes under more than 300 guises. The AOC structure includes marks, such as Cotes du Rhône and Bordeaux, that enjoy genuine consumer recognition. But what store should a buyer set by theAppellation Quarts de Chaume, for marking out the best 25 per cent of wine produced on a south-facing 40-hectare hillside close to Rochefort sur Loire?

The French government has now begun a detailed analysis of 'quality' vineyards, which is, itself, long overdue in positioning an industry with some 112,500 commercialproducers (compared with 1,800 in Australia). But there is still no sign that this might presage a more consistent, or recognisable, system of quality marks.

This leaves the nation's vintners with a marketing challenge, par excellence.

Producing small volumes, under a fragmented classification system, up against large, well-funded competition is not an obvious route to market strength.

But there are ways: and vintners need to do more to help themselves.

Marketing requires planning, co-ordination and action.

France has strong and well-recognised regional identities. The smaller wine businesses that have already joined forces to form co-operatives must use this strength to spearheadcohesive regional marketing strategies for their wines.

In achieving consumer recognition, grape varieties, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon, are now well understood worldwide. There are also many regional landmarks on which to hangFrench brands. How did Gallo beat native French producers to the name Pont d'Avignon?

And for niche labels, the Internet should be a gift, with its emerging strength as a sales avenue for sectors with a 'long tail' of small-volume products.

If French wine is to offer a livelihood as well as a way of life, vintners cannot shun the realities of selling. Global marketing may be the antithesis to French wine culture, butwine that won't sell cannot even be used as industrial alcohol, without help.

Chris Mercer is editor on BeverageDaily.com and a freelance writer and researcher on the wine industry for other media including BBC Radio 4.

Related topics: Views, Market Trends

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