by Tim Atkin

French wines and Charles Aznavour

“Fall in love with France again” sounds like a Charles Aznavour song — imagine it crooned in a soft-toned Gallic accent — but it’s actually the title that one importer chose for a recent tasting highlighting its extensive French range. You could read the phrase in several ways: as a piece of encouragement, an order or a desperate plea.

Given that the Thierry’s tasting coincided with the news that France has slipped to fifth place in volume wine exports to this country, behind Australia, the United States, Italy and now South Africa, perhaps the third option is the most appropriate. Like an old lady whose looks are not what they were, France is casting around for suitors.

Winemakers and negociants on the other side of the Channel must be contemplating the figures with despair. If it were just a case of British contrariness — perfidious Albion at its worst — the French could dismiss their poor performance in the UK as a special case. But it’s much worse than that. In 2009 worldwide French wine exports fell to their lowest level in a decade, down by 8.7% to 12.5m hectolitres, according to export development agency Ubifrance. All of France’s major markets except China are in decline, but sales in the UK slumped by nearly a quarter.

Can France reverse the trend? It’s the thinnest of silver linings to the enveloping dark cloud, but sales appear to have recovered a little towards the end of 2009, with better export figures in December. This makes sense. People are more likely to splash out at Christmas time, even in a recession, and they still regard France as the best source of special and celebratory bottles.

Are those December figures an example of what economists call “dead cat bounce” or are they the start of a genuine recovery? I’m not sure, to be honest. But if you look at the long-term performance of French wines in this market, you might be inclined to favour the former explanation. Sales have been in steady (and now, apparently, headlong) decline for two decades or more.

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but I think France can dig itself out of the merde. The first thing to remember is that the quality of French wine has never been better at every level. France used to have a ratio of 20% good wine to 40% mediocre and 40% bad; now I’d put those percentages at 35%, 35% and 30%. France still produces its fair share of dross, but so does everyone else. And when its wines are good (not always the same thing as expensive), they are very hard to beat.

France has greater diversity than any other country, with the possible exception of Italy. Most consumers are only familiar with classic French wine styles, such as Beaujolais, Chablis, Sancerre, Bordeaux, red Burgundy and Côtes Rhône. They have barely begun to appreciate the transformation that is occurring in lesser known areas such as Madiran, the Roussillon and Savoie, or the improvements that have been made to more familiar wine styles like Muscadet.

It used to be said that France was out of touch with consumer tastes, but I don’t think that’s true any more. If you consider what the Vins de Pays (now renamed IGP) movement has achieved, with more approachable wine styles, better packaging and varietal labelling, France is in a much better position now than it was at the end of the last Millennium.

What about its relative lack of mass market brands? France may not have a Blossom Hill, a First Cape or a Blossom Hill, but is that really a disadvantage? Repackaged Piat d’Or and JP Chenet are not the most exciting wines in the world, but the likes of Dourthe, Paul Mas, Blason de Bourgogne, Laurent Miquel, La Différence, La Grille and Gérard Bertrand are making some fantastic things between £5 and £10. I think these wines are more than a match for the competition.

France’s problem has nothing to do with the quality of its wines. It’s the public’s perception of the place — old-fashioned, over-regulated, slightly boring — that needs fixing. Importers, Ubifrance and Sopexa have a big job on their hands to change the way that consumers see French wines, but the task is not impossible. The 2009 vintage will create a buzz around Bordeaux this year and Burgundy next, and that should trickle down to the other regions.

Talking of regions, part of the problem is that the different French areas seldom work together on export markets, or at home for that matter. Indeed, sometimes there is a very strong rivalry between them. Now more than ever, France needs a unified effort overseas with a single body to represent all of its regions and quality designations, from Appellation Contrôlée to the newly created Vins de France. It could also use a figurehead who represents the best of France to the rest of the world. Someone like Charles Aznavour perhaps?

Originally published in Off Licence News

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