France resigned to appeal of mass-produced wine

By John Lichfield

Valerie Pajotin French wine will soon be "like Coca-Cola", according to a senior French wine official.

The statement was not a complaint. It was a boast.

A few years ago, such a declaration by a senior figure in the French wine industry would have been equivalent to the Vatican questioning the virgin birth of Christ.

This week the reaction of the French wine world was muted, even resigned and, in many cases, positive.

The heretical declaration was made by Valerie Pajotin, the director of the French industry's new, international marketing arm, Anivin.

What she announced, more precisely, was that, in the near future, many - possibly most low- and medium-priced French wines will be mass produced and will have a uniform taste.

Alongside the jumble of chateau names and "appellations" on the supermarket or off-licence shelf, there will be a relatively small number of instantly recognisable brands under the portmanteau title "Vins de France".

At the top end of the market, and even in the middle price range, the great, local wine names and traditions will survive or even thrive.

No one is suggesting that Chateau Rothschild Lafite should become part of a new label called, let us say, "Regrette Rien". On the other hand, thousands of French wine producers who now make their own wine, or contribute to village co-operatives, will be encouraged (some fear, forced) to sell their grapes to large wineries or wine factories.

There, the wine would be custom-designed to appeal to the middle or low market tastes of the young wine drinkers in northern European countries, and especially Britain (still the biggest market for French wine outside France).

The wine will be marketed by its grape variety - such as chardonnay, or pinot noir, or cabernet sauvignon and not by its local wine producer or place of origin.

It will be of high, consistent quality. It will be clearly branded with cheerful, simple labels like many Australian and other "New World" wines.

Some of the wines will be the product of one large region. Others will be mixed and matched from grapes grown all over France.

"Assembling wines in this way ensures a consistency of quality which will retain consumer loyalty by offering a constant taste from 1 January to 31 December," Ms Pajotin said. "It is what happens with consumer brands such as Coca-Cola."

In other words, to try to cope with a deepening crisis in French wine exports - and a glut of cheap and mid-price wine in the world - France is throwing in the towel and going Australian.

This is not a complete revolution. Some French wines are already marketed by their grape variety. Some are even designed by itinerant Australian wine-makers to appeal to foreign markets.

What is new, following a decade of debate, is that the downgrading - some would say destruction - of French wine traditions has finally become the official policy of a large section of the French industry.

The president of Anivin, created at the end of last year, is Rene Moreno, the head of a wine co-operative at Montagnac in the Languedoc foothills west of Montpellier.

He said: "The aim is to simplify the range of French wines on offer to give them a brand, a characteristic taste and a clear national origin, but also a uniform quality like the wines of the New World."

A few years ago that statement would have been an act of oenological apostasy, but after a 30 per cent reduction in France's share of world trade world in wine in the past three decades, many French wine traders and producers are ready to accept the unsentimental verdict of the market.

France has known for years that its old, effortless, domination of the world wine trade is over. New World wines of excellent quality have been siphoning off the wine drinkers, who want to spend under £10 ($21) on a bottle of wine and be sure of what they are getting.

Three years ago, the French government proposed a solution with the very best and most expensive wines placed in a new "dream" or luxury category while the bulk of the industry would produce, broadly-speaking, "Australian" French wines with a relatively few, simple labels.

The Australo-French wine concept has been officially embraced, to little complaint, from this week.

Market logic has, it seems, triumphed over tradition. Anyone for a glass of "Regrette Rien"?

- INDEPENDENT

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