From FRANCE 24 —June 2011
The French wine industry—a source of significant revenue for the national economy and a reason of pride—is changing to adapt to a globalized market. It is increasingly focusing on grape varietals rather than regions of production as a key marketing factor to boosting sales and fighting competition.
A recent study carried out by Sopexa, a former governement export agency now an independent food marketing group, found that up to 60 percent of wine importers from 12 different countries across Europe, North America and Asia were anticipating an increase in orders of “varietal wine » made from a single type of grape and marketed primarily with that grape name. Varietal wines are especially sought-after in Britain, the US, and Canada. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape poised to be most in demand, according to wine experts, ahead of Pinot Noir and Merlot.
Traditionally most French wines do not display the name of the grape on the bottle. And despite a 2004 reform that authorized in France selling wines marketed by grape type rather than by region, there is resistance to adopting that practice. According to Toulouse-based wine merchant Philippe Chaumont, “it’s easier for countries with less wine history. They can invent a system for marketing their wine from scratch. They’re trying to sell to the entire world. In France when wine sales first started, the point was to sell to the next village and then the next district, and so on.”
According to Chaumont, this deeply ingrained mentality “penalized France in wine sales abroad, since the name of the vineyard or the region doesn’t mean anything to the average customer looking for an affordable wine”.
Popular French wine stores such as the Nicolas chain of stores, considered a middle step between supermarkets and independent wine merchants, have nevertheless been boosting their varietals offerings. Indeed, for France—which lost its title as world’s biggest wine producer to Italy in 2008, but remains the wine exporter in value—the name of a grape will be a more effective marketing tool in its competition with thriving wine markets in various countries from Argentina to China. It’s also a way to attract a younger, less wine-savvy clientèle.
But the shift toward an emphasis on grapes in selling wine is, for France, a shift away from a tradition of geographic appellation that placed emphasis on the cherished concept of “terroir”—the impact on wine taste of the combination of climate, soil and local characteristics. “Each wine should represent its region in particular,” said Chaumont. “When I am drinking a wine from Tuscany, I don’t want it to taste like a Beaujolais.” Bordeaux is generally considered the most popular appellation or geographical indication particularly in Asian markets. Five of the ten top-selling wine regions in Europe are Italian—but the top three are French.
That fact perhaps explains the feeling of independent wine merchants like Chaumont. “I understand that varietal wines are better adapted to today’s market, but wine is a cultural product,” he said. “It’s a story, a past, a region, an exchange between people.”
If France ends up gravitating decisively toward an industry catered around grape types instead of regions, “we’ll all lose”, he said.