Japan's wine importers have defended their use of plastic bottles for this year's Beaujolais Nouveau after the head of the French wine-makers association criticized the move.

Daniel Bulliat, head of the Beaujolais-Beaujolais Village association, told a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday that selling the wine in plastic bottles runs counter to the growers' traditions and image.

This year's wines went on sale across Japan on Thursday, but Bulliat said his association would be drawing up new rules that would explicitly forbid any plastic bottles from carrying the prestigious Beaujolais name from next year.

But importers say their state-of-the-art plastic bottles are just as good as glass ones - plus they help increase sales by making the product cheaper because each bottle is lighter and therefore less expensive to transport from France.

"This is the first year that we have used these plastic bottles, but we chose to do so only after we came to understand that these are very high-quality containers," Kiyoshi Yokoyama, general manager of the corporate communications department of Mercian Corp., told Relaxnews.

"They have been tested and are very good quality, they protect the wine from light and oxygen contamination and generally keep it in a good condition," he said. "These are not just any old plastic bottles."

Mercian has imported 60,000 cases of Beaujolais Nouveau this year and had initially expected to sell around 5,000 cases of the wine in plastic bottles, but demand has been strong and more than 7,800 cases of 750-ml plastic bottles have been sold, Yokoyama said.

Bulliat said that storing Beaujolais Nouveau in plastic bottles over a long period of time damages the quality of the wine and that his association would have acted to stop sales in Japan had it been aware of the importers' plans.

In total, around 4.8 million bottles of the wine have been imported this year, down an estimated 30 percent from last year's figures. Companies blame the decline on the global economic slowdown and the end of the "boom" that the wine enjoyed in the early years of the decade.

"In 2003, more than one million cases were sold in Japan but that was because of the boom that year," said Yokoyama. "Consumers purchased Beaujolais Nouveau in that year because of the media coverage. We believe that the current level of sales is stable and we hope that people who buy this wine will also try some other imported wines."