How France got lost in translation

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Indy Lifestyle Online

French wine producers are in crisis, and the bumper crop they're about to deliver just won't help.

French wine producers are in crisis, and the bumper crop they're about to deliver just won't help. Even in a time of plenty, every wine region is stuffed with For Sale signs and faces so long that Modigliani would be spoilt for subjects. As Neil Sedaka might have sung, they are finding breaking even so very hard to do.

Why? In a cut-throat global market, it's increasingly hard for the French to sell their wines. Appellation rules, unhelpful labelling, historically high prices, and behind-the-times wine styles are all conspiring against them. Never mind France's revolutionary past, what's needed is radical changes to the conservative and uncompetitive wine regulations.

For red wine, read red tape. The rigid and outdated appellation rules stifle creativity and strangle the producers whom the system was designed to protect. With its recognisable grape varieties and brands, the New World has been allowed to overshadow the very real French virtues of charm and tradition. Can you tell your Faugères from your Corbières? "It's no use selling wines by appellation," says Gavin Crisfield, an English winemaker at La Sauvageonne in the Languedoc, "because no one knows what or where they are."

It's a problem that's compounded by the Evin Law, which restricts wine advertising. No matter that French billboards are full of eye-popping lovelies foisting upon you anything from moisturisers to sausages, associations between wine drinking and sex are not allowed, and campaigns for Burgundy and Bordeaux have fallen foul of the law.

As competition from the rest of the world and overproduction in France send prices plummeting, it becomes harder and harder for French growers to make ends meet. According to Frantz Vènes, a producer in the Minervois, "It costs €5,000 [£3,300] per hectare to make minervois, but the wine trade will only pay you €3,000 if you sell it in bulk. Unless you have a brand with something behind it, you might as well throw the cellar key away." Selling the wine in the bottle, rather than in bulk, is only an option if there's an export market. And without the brands, the French are losing out.

Champagne apart, its wine exports are down 9 per cent so far this year. Bordeaux has been one of the worst hit, with exports for all but its prestige wines dropping nearly 12 per cent so far. Meanwhile, Australian brands now claim six of the top-10 places in the UK, where French wines are still being elbowed off supermarket shelves. The situation is so dire that the French government has intervened with subsidies to uproot overproducing vines and provide extra funds for marketing and promotion. But too much overpriced, mediocre wine isn't the only problem.

The government's most radical proposal is to allow Bordeaux and Burgundy to make vins de pays. Currently Bordeaux and Burgundy may only put "appellation contrôlée" on the label, while vins de pays can use the grape variety. Bordeaux and Burgundy would have to sacrifice appellation contrôlée for the more marketable grape name. Other bans that apply to appellation wines - such as the use of oak chips and of irrigation in the vineyards, both common practice in the New World - may also be lifted.

Will this help stop the rot? The government is bureaucratic and slow, and any change in restrictions may be too late for many embattled producers. The future lies with the new generation of growers with a can-do attitude. Already they have the courage and energy to defy the rules and campaign against them. Aux armes, vignerons!

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