Plonk or perfection – the battle for the soul of French wine

Awash in a flood of New World labels, the pride of France is to be rationalised – to the horror of traditionalists

French wine will soon be "like Coca-Cola", a senior French wine official said this week. 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 Valérie 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 château 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 Château 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 – 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 circular arguments, 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 René 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."

Just 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 last three decades, many French wine traders and producers are now 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, say, four to 10 quid on a bottle of wine and be sure of what they are getting.

According to the official religion of French wine-making, taste grows from the earth. Its characteristics should not be imposed in factories by men in white coats. It is a mystical fusion of "cépage" (grape variety), centuries of local tradition and that untranslatable French word "terroir", which means, roughly speaking, the growing conditions of soil, sub-soil, micro-climate and lie of the land.

A French wine writer, Jacques Puisais, once said that any real wine had the "face of its birthplace and the guts of the man who made it".

On the upper slopes of the wine market, that is fine. The very best French wines are sometimes matched in quality by wines from elsewhere but no other country approaches their variety. They still sell well, at home and abroad, despite their high prices.

The lower, and even the middle, slopes of the wine market are a different story. French wines, even at the lowest price levels, come with a bewildering variety of labels, some based on grape variety, some on the wine-maker, some on the region. There are 466 official "appellations", quite apart from the hundreds of chateau and producers' names and vins de pays. The quality can vary absurdly, even between bottles with what looks to be the same label.

A government commission on the future of the French wine industry made all these points nine years ago. Since then there have been a series of angry battles between reformers and traditionalists.

Many French wine traders, and some producers, argue that the mystical talk of "terroir" has often been used to conceal downright bad wine-making in France. If the small growers wish to survive, they say, they must produce what French and foreign consumers want to drink, not what they have always unthinkingly produced.

Traditionalists (and being traditional does not necessarily make them wrong) complain that France is being asked to dumb down one of its national splendours to pander to ignorant foreign tastes.

They regard the New World philosophy of wine-making – in which taste is homogenised to suit consumer demand, rather than generated by the soil or "terroir" – as a commercial form of the phylloxera bug which destroyed French vineyards in the 19th century. The traditionalists also fear that, despite assurances from official sources, the generic, grape variety-led concept of the new "Vins de France" will gradually erode the number of "appellations" in France. At the very least, they say, it will make it very difficult for new, lovingly made, moderately-priced local wines to emerge.

Périco Légasse, the food and wine critic of Marianne magazine, and the most eloquent defender of French wine traditions, believes that the new approach adopted by Anivin this week is not only heretical but self-defeating.

Wines labelled by their orgins are, Mr Legasse says "what makes French wines prized and authentic. It is not just a geographical and quality label but the symbol of 20 centuries of knowledge and experience of work on the soil."

It is commercially senseless, he suggests, to adopt New World methods when scales of production elsewhere will always have the edge over France. Eighty per cent of Australian wine-making is controlled by five companies.

Three years ago, the French government proposed a three-tier solution. The very best and most expensive wines would be placed in a new "dream" or luxury category. The remainder of the appellation contrôlée wines would have some of their restrictions relaxed and their quality control increased. The bulk of the industry would produce, broadly-speaking, "Australian" French wines with a relatively few, simple labels.

Much the same direction was proposed by a reform of the European Union wine policy two years ago. The French government's proposals were partially defeated and partially accepted. The appellation contrôlée – or AOC system – has not (yet) been divided into a premiership and a second division. 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"?

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