France needs a united front

04 April, 2008

The French," General Charles de Gaulle once argued, "will only be united under the threat of danger." The great French leader was talking about physical invasion, an all too recent memory in 1951, rather than an economic threat, but his words could be applied with equal precision to the country's wine industry.

It's taken the French a long time to react, but over the past few years they have begun to realise that the challenge posed by the so-called New World is not going to go away. I wouldn't say

they have come over all touchy feely (they pride themselves on being individualists after all), but there are signs

the French are starting to formulate collective responses to deep-seated problems.

Necessary reforms

Two things are worth commenting on. The first is the likely introduction (still to be ratified by the government) of a catch-all category, Vin de Vignobles de France, along the lines of the South Eastern Australia denomination. This will enable producers to source grapes (or wine) from France's 64 different wine regions and blend them together. In the past, such pan-regional wines had to be labelled as Vins de Table and were not allowed to use a vintage or the name of grape varieties on the label.

Of even greater importance (at least from my point of view) are the changes to the appellation contrôlée (AOC) system that will come into effect later this year. Instead of being run by local "syndicats", which always struck me as counter productive at best and a blatant conflict of interest at worst, this will now be administered by a new, national body called the Organisme de Défense et de Gestion (ODG).

Another responsibility that will be taken away from the syndicats is the granting of the "agrément", the system by which appellation wines are deemed to be of sufficient quality to be sold to the public. In the past, this was a joke. Very few wines were rejected, and those that were often failed because they were interesting, rather than faulty. Now that certified independent bodies will conduct the blind tastings, France's appellations have a chance to re-establish themselves as a guarantee of quality as well as origin. Let's hope those bodies show some teeth.

One decision that has not been taken at a national level, and should be, is to appoint a single person to represent France's vinous interests in the UK. Let's call such a person Mr or Ms France. Sopexa does a good job, but the fact that it doesn't represent Bordeaux (handled by R&R Teamwork), Champagne (Peretti Communicatons) or Roussillon (Focus PR), and shares the Languedoc with Westbury, undermines France's ability to speak with a single, clear voice. Why not have an active figurehead, similar to Michael Cox of Wines of Chile, Jo Mason of Wines of South Africa or James Forbes of Wines of Argentina to promote France's many qualities?

The recent debate about the future of French wines, held at the annual France Under One Roof tasting and organised by Thierry's, highlighted a number of positives. Over the years, I've been a panellist at a number of such debates, but this one felt more optimistic than usual. There were the usual complaints about French bureaucracy and the inability to take radical decisions before they've been ratified by dozens of committees and sub-committees, but most of the speakers were upbeat.

In the past, I've always considered myself a passionate, yet all too often disappointed Francophile. My position has always been that, at the top end, no one makes wines that can compare with France's. Yet the absence of decent brands and the presence of too many truly mediocre wines in the middle and lower reaches of the market kept undermining my faith in what France at its best stands for: complexity, diversity, elegance and (in a positive sense) heritage.

Positive points

That won't change overnight, but there are lots of positive signs. France's average bottle price (£4.31) is now second only to New Zealand's (£6.26), reflecting the country's growing strength above £5. France is doing well in the booming rosé category (it has 12% of the 9.1 million case market). And, most exciting of all, France's brands are improving: to cite only a few names, La Chasse du Pape, Blason de Bourgogne, La Différence, Paul Mas, Gérard Bertrand, La Grille, Mont Tauch, Chat-en-Oeuf, Laurent Miquel and the Plaimont co-op are all making great value wines.

As consumers begin to tire of the same old grape varieties (many of them French, it must be said), France is in a position to offer them thrilling new flavours. Off the top of my head, I'd nominate Rolle, Savagnin, Grenache Gris, Sauvignon Gris, Picpoul, Gros and Petit Manseng, Grolleau, Fer Servadou, Carignan, Braucol, Alicante Bouschet and Mourvèdre as varieties that deserve a wider audience.

France is not without its problems (not least the anti-alcohol lobby, bickering between various regional and category representatives and a president who doesn't drink), but is in a better position now than it has been for 20 years. It has the vineyards, the winemakers and the wines to regain its position as the UK's number one supplier. What it doesn't have, at least not yet, is an individual, or even a group of people, with the vision, the courage and the knowledge to make it happen.

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