A Reality Check on The French Wine Crisis
What is the state of the current crisis in the French wine industry? A combination of declining domestic consumption in many European countries, and 5-10% annual slide in exports have helped create surpluses which run into the billions of litres. Couple this with reports of crazed Languedoc winemakers brandishing pitchforks and rioting in the streets, and that a number of wineries are on the brink of bankruptcy, and one can’t help but sense a hint of desperation on the other side of the Atlantic. But is this actually the case or another example of sensationalized journalism?
The recent Salon des Vins gave me an opportunity to talk with a number of European, mostly French, winemakers. I had expected to encounter a sullen and desperate crew, battered and bruised after years of difficult vintages, falling sales and internal strife. What I did find however was an interesting dialogue that is beginning to develop within the industry. And while the particular visions may at times be quite divergent, there was a sense of optimism on the surface, and hints of change if one read between the lines. The full interviews will be coming at you later this summer (wink!).
If there was one common vision in all those I talked to it was the desire to maintain the existing appellation system. While most mentioned the need for more informative labeling (grapes used and percentage of the blend), the focus tended to rely more on effective marketing than moving towards single varietal wines, or eliminating many of the restrictions that are inherent in the AOC system. They still see their AOC as a brand, under-developed, but a brand nonetheless that needs to be commercialized better in the new world (I would suggest hiring more North American ad agencies and yes, many of those I talked to think Jerry Lewis is very funny).
That being said, the one recurring theme from all was the idea of ripeness. Whether or not this means changing the traditional French notion of ripeness towards one which approaches a new world model, that was not universal. However, the Rolland wines of Clinet and Clemence in Pomerol were remarkably juicy from 2001 big Bordeaux and one was hard-pressed to find a winemaker that didn’t emphasize the ripeness qualifier to describe their wines. Aside from ripeness, I noticed a subtle tendency towards more wood, especially in Chablis. Perhaps this is that oh so French way of adapting without adapting, you gotta love ‘em ( sort of).
Most noticeable was the emphasis placed on North American markets. If Bordeaux seems to be back on track with respect to its exports, it is largely due to us. However, how one should approach the emerging American wine drinker was far from universal. Tomas Perrin from Beaucastel in Chateauneuf was convinced that the recent downturn in French exports is cyclical, and that French wine will soon regain its dominance and thus few changes need to be made (however a new sanitary regime in the chais to remove all traces of Brett is perhaps a concession to New World Fruit-sters).
Others such as Ramos Pintos in the Duoro (Adriana) and the Languedoc’s Paul Mas (Arrogant Frog) have created bottlings solely for these export markets. These wines were described as fruity, modern, easy to drink and less expensive than their regular bottlings, however, neither was willing to talk much about how these wines were made. While I didn't get to see or taste the Ramos bottle, Mas' Frog was a beautiful satirical take on this animal label laden 'adventure' wine category).
(The Arrogant Frog was his response to the ‘Freedom Fryers’ call for a ban on French Wine. First put together as a bit of a joke, it has become the cornerstone of his exports to the New World markets).
So the word was ‘make allowances but don’t stray too far from tradition.’ There is the feeling that at least a portion of this emerging North American market will tire of the New World ‘verrry ripe’ style of wine. Whether or not this is the right approach, time will tell, but I did taste a number of really good Aussie and Californian un-oaked Chardonnays and many a cabernet and zinfandel much more restrained and far less oaked than I am accustomed to. Is it because they ran out of barrels or is the market already moving in that (I would say right) direction?