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Points make prices

Published:  18 January, 2007

So, the influence of the famous RP (Robert Parker to you) is no longer a matter of folklore and hearsay.

It has now been quantified by no less an august body than INRA, the French agricultural research station.

The research was undertaken particularly in relation to Bordeaux en primeur. The authors tell us what we already really knew. The chteau proprietors,' they write, fix their prices from April to June, which allows them to incorporate the Parker ratings.'

They studied two campaigns - that of 2002 (with the 2001 vintage) and 2003 (with the 2002 vintage). As readers will recall, RP did not taste the 2002 vintage until September, well after prices had been set.

The INRA team noticed that other critics, especially the French, judged both vintages to be of similar quality (something British critics might disagree with), but that the prices of 2001 were on average e3 higher than those of 2002. The differences were particularly marked in Pomerol, one of RP's favourite appellations.

The end of April is normally when RP's Wine Advocate appears with the scores, so you may well have seen the ratings by the time you read this. But already chteau owners are cutting prices for the 2004 vintage, a reflection of the weak market, the weak dollar and a sense of reality after the unjustified euphoria of the 2003 vintage.

While Bordeaux growers agonise about whether to allow a Vin de Pays de la Gironde for farmers on the periphery of the Bordeaux vineyard, they might like to be reminded that in many other areas of France, growers can make both appellation and vin de pays wines from the same vineyards.

And the sky hasn't fallen in. In fact, in Languedoc and the Loire valley, the two areas where this practice is most common, growers think it's a great idea. So much so that, in 2000 (the most recent year in which this particular study was made), the grapes from 10% of Languedoc's appellation vineyard were voluntarily declassified by growers. This allowed them to produce more, and to produce fruit from vines not allowed under appellation rules (Chardonnay, Cabernet, etc) - allowing them, in fact, to compete on the world market. So I am still waiting to see whether Bordeaux follows suit. A Vin de Pays de la Gironde Chardonnay, perhaps, or a Viognier? Or what about Syrah or Pinot Noir?

I have long been a believer that the Americans are not as important to French producers as the Americans would like to believe. After all, there are other markets in the world, which the French have been working assiduously, and I have proof to hand in an advert for the French Wines World Tour 2005, which is organised in conjunction with La Journe Vinicole, the French wine trade journal.

There are nine destinations listed this year. Five of them are in the Far East (two in China, and one each in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan). Only two are in Europe (Poland and Russia), while two more are in Canada. No mention of the US, or, come to that, Britain.

My belief is further reinforced when I learn that two new Sopexa offices are being opened, one in Canton and the other in Delhi. Taking part in a French Senate debate on 29 March, agriculture secretary of state Nicolas Forissier made this announcement as part of a wide-ranging review of the studies of Sopexa. One of the main proposals made to the Senate was that Sopexa's activities need to be changed, so that it can actually develop initiatives, rather than waiting for wine regions to come up with ideas. The French government believes that a more coordinated strategy (backed, needless to say, by more money) is needed.

With final French wine export figures for 2004 now released, it's obviously high time to rethink French agriculture export promotion. Exports fell by 6% in volume and 5% in value. It is clear that Bordeaux has suffered the most - if Bordeaux is taken out of the export figures, the fall was limited to 5% in volume, while value remained stable.

Burgundy, the Loire and Champagne are the regions that have come off best. Champagne, indeed, increased exports by both volume and value. For Burgundy and the Loire, the reds were the wines that gave the best results.

There were encouraging signs, too, from the home market. Sales of appellation wines have stabilised, even though vin de pays and vin de table sales continue to fall.

I wouldn't suggest complacency, or even that some of these regions are not losing further sales. But the figures, released by French customs, do indicate that the fall is slowing down. Could it be the bottom of the cycle? But then I was always an optimist.