Wednesday, March 29, 2006

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?


Lenn said...

If it were easier (possible) to get Long Island wines to you in'd get to taste some local unoaked chards.

Anyway...thanks for the post without the sensationalism. More oak in Chablis is no good though.

caveman said...

I would like nothing more than to taste some of that LI Chard...Maybe in the fall ..and I agree, the oaky chablis doesn't work for me either.

St. Vini said...


Glad to hear there is optimism in France. Not sure if clinging to the AOC is the best solution, but as long as their industry is willing to address change(!) that's at least a sign of progress for a pretty slow-moving group.

Regarding the general 'ripeness' comments, do you think the 2003 heat-wave vintage will change thinking or is it thought to be a one-time unfortunate thing (notwithstanding the big scores from Spectator & co)?


caveman said...


2003 from pretty well everyone outside of Burgundy that I talked too was considered a debacle. The vines were so fucked that they spent much of 04 getting their health back in order. I think there was a lot that was learnt but french winemakers in particular, though nobody is expecting a repeat of those conditions anytime soon. But NOBODY that I talked too was in favor of allowing irrigation...They still believe that the vines must suffer...

Insofar as the reviews go, maybe the spec heads have a taste for tartric acid...but aside from burgundy (beaujolais in particular)and some Loire chenin, I have yet to taste anything that is close to being really intersting..reds are way too tannic and the sauv and chard are way too fat. I really don't understand those people.

Deena said...

Fascinating! Thanks for the inside report. I'm so glad to hear that the vignerons feel that way about the AOC system - it's pretty much exactly what I ask for as a consumer. Don't ditch hundreds of years of tradition, just tell me the grapes. And it's also good to hear that they are getting more focused on marketing - I wonder what the French answer to "critter labels" will be?

Riana said...

I actually live in the Languedoc, and have friends with chateaux here, and yes, they did set fire to couple of tires in town!

It is hard trying to get the old timers here to get with the forward motion of the future as I am told by Onologs of the new French generation in France. They like tradition, harvesting by the moon and doing it the old fashioned way. This influx of new graduates and new blood will bring them around eventually, but not before some go bust.

As an American living in France, I get marketing questions all the time (and even if they don't know that I used to work in the wine biz)What iz thiz? Maybe, I'll try to help one bottle at a time, the old fashioned way!

Iris said...

Funny, Riana, I'm a winemaker living in the South of France - and I can tell you, most of us are in teir vinyards at the moment and not burning tires - but we have less journalists around us, when we are working as when some "traditionalists" are riotimg (they do so since a 100 years already - there has always been a crisis of over-production around since 1907).

And for the "moon harvesting" - those are not the old ones, but biodynamic agriculture is something rather new, and it's a good thing, that not only Romanée Conti or Petrus grapes are cultivated in a nature respecting way.

For critter labels: we do have fat bastards, little pigs and loups blancs already....