French wines' new export strategy: think "Coca-Cola"

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Indy Lifestyle Online

You know times have changed when French wines, bruised by competition from the "New World", fight back with the upstarts' own weapon - dropping complex regional labeling for the plain old grape name.

Even the staunchest of Gallic wine lovers now order chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon instead of, say, their favorite Chablis or Bordeaux.

The change concerns everyday wines, notably those bound for export. Labels on better varieties, grand cru and AOC or "controlled designation of origin" wines will carry on in time-honored fashion.

But it's a jolt in a country where regional identity remains strong (are you from Brittany? Provence?), where the term "terroir" - soil - is an agricultural mark of pride, and where wines can be declined down to the hillside where the grapes grew.

The strategy?

Market recognition, consistent taste.

"It's like creating a well-known brand name, like Apple or Coca-Cola," said Valerie Pajotin, director of Anivin, a trade organisation formed last year to promote "Vin de France", the new denomination that has replaced the old "vin de table", or table wine, a term that carried a negative connotation of low quality.

The goal?

Winning back ground from "New World" competitors, notably Californian and Australian wines that overtook French sales in some key foreign markets like Britain, Germany and the United States.

"In one generation, we lost 20 to 30 percent of the share of our principal markets," said Bertrand Praz, purchasing manager for Grands Chais de France, which bills itself as the leading French exporter of wines and spirts.

In 2009 alone, exports of French wine tumbled 19 percent to 5.5 billion euros (6.7 billion dollars), dropping to levels a decade ago, according to figures from Ubifrance, the French agency for international business development.

Some critics feel the change could damage local wine traditions but Praz insists that French growers need "to be more humble and rethink how they work".

Historically, place has been primordial, even in everyday wines. French producers relied on their reputation for quality and savoir-faire and did not worry about making labels understandable to the uninitiated, he said.

Add to this vintage - good years and bad years - to confuse the choice.

In came "New World" wines, starting several decades ago with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and more recently Chile and Argentina, who wooed away clients with user-friendly labels touting the grape name.

"You can no longer ignore the fact that grape variety is now the undisputed reference" for consumers trying out wines, said Anivin president Rene Moreno.

The client will ask for a "sauvignon" if he wants a dry white wine or a "chardonnay" if he prefers one that's full-bodied, he said.

Chris Adams, chief executive of the major Manhattan retailer Sherry Lehmann said he thought the changes could help French sales in the US. "It's been a long time in coming and there is some ground to be made."

"Newer world varietal wines are starting to lose a bit of traction," said Adams, " and I think what we term 'French country' wines here at SL can gain some ground with this move."

Wine trade sources say the new labeling could also boost domestic sales, notably in supermarket chains and with younger clients.

The new approach was helped by 2008 reforms in the European Union wine sector that allowed use of the generic term "Vin de France".

"The goal is to simplify French offerings based on a label, a taste, a national origin, with a consistent quality, the way New World countries do," Moreno said.

The reforms allow producers to mix the same grape variety from different regions to "allow more creativity and to adapt easier to market demands," said Pajotin, whose Anivin group has an annual 800,000-euro budget.

"This possibility of mixing ensures a consistent quality wanted by the consumer who is expecting the same taste from January 1 to December 31," she said.

Like Coca-Cola.

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