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French aim to stop rot of diminishing wine exports: Vineyards campaign to head off new world threat. Anthony Rose reports

ALTHOUGH a fitting epitaph for a former Chancellor, je ne regrette rien is a sentiment more commonly associated with the French. Not best known for their capacity for breast-beating, the French were nevertheless in London en masse this week positively shovelling down the humble pie. The grands fromages of France in general and Bordeaux in particular were here to launch high-profile campaigns aimed at stopping the rot of diminishing wine exports.

The trouble is that Britain, France's biggest export market, has begun to turn its back on some of the most traditional of France's wine regions. While imports of quality vins de pays, superior table wines with a designation of origin, rose a record 25 per cent last year, appellation controlee imports fell by more than 6 per cent.

The decline reflects an international trend. French wine exports account for 45 per cent of the international market. After a steady increase in exports of French wines world-wide - from 9 billion to 13.6 billion bottles in 10 years - exports fell for the first time last year. They were down 6.5 per cent in volume, 3 per cent in value.

'We have made mistakes,' admitted Guy Geoffroy, director of ONIVINS, the wine arm of the French Ministry of Agriculture. He acknowledges that while France took its eye off the ball, California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and, more recently, the countries of the former Eastern bloc, were stealing market share from under the French nose.

As a result, the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) is to institute a two-year moratorium on planting vines and ban the name of the grape variety from most appellation controlee labels.

But according to Simon Loftus, a director of Adnams, wine merchants in Southwold, 'it is sheer insanity to forbid the declaration of varietal components on the label. The consumer recognises grape varieties, and regards that identification as a positive aid to flavour preference'.

The ailing appellation controlee image is the focus of Food & Wine from France's 12m franc (pounds 1.5m) shot in the arm to revive flagging sales. The aim is 'to bring French wines down to earth'. Whether this occurs in the manner intended remains to be seen.

Not to be outhumbled, the men from Bordeaux were equally contrite. At 34 million bottles, Bordeaux is Britain's single biggest category of French wine imports. At a separate event, the Bordelais admitted they had been resting on their laurels, and even overcharged for their wines.

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