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When wine is not wine

Published:  18 January, 2007

I am not alone in wondering why Champagne is seemingly immune from the French wine crisis. While other regions of France are agonising about pulling out vines, in Champagne they are worrying about whether there is any land left to plant within the appellation. While Bordeaux is rocked by falling sales and high stocks (up 9.4% over 2004), in Champagne the concern is about the time, not far distant, when demand is going to outstrip supply.

So what's the secret? I am more and more convinced, talking to wine professionals and wine drinkers alike, that Champagne succeeds because it is no longer perceived as a wine. It may be made from grapes, but it is not an agricultural product. Today, and probably for many years, Champagne is positioned as a luxury product, bracketed with fashion, perfumes and fast cars. It's no surprise that a third of all Champagne production is in the hands of one of the world's top luxury-brand companies, LVMH. It is their adroit and long-term marketing that has taken Champagne out of the wine category with its cyclical nature and propelled it into a category that always seems to find rich people.

Of course, we mere journalists who survive on the small cheques that come our way from editors still want to buy a bottle or two of Champagne occasionally. But we are not really in the picture. Champagne breathes luxury, high living and rich people. That's why Champagne is in a healthy state while French table wines are not.

French wine organisations have published a whole series of conditions that they see as essential to push French table wine out of its crisis. They have divided these measures into short-term solutions and medium-term solutions (I haven't seen any long-term solutions - maybe those don't exist in the French viticultural mentality).

The short-term solutions are all designed to give growers subsidies to see them through the present problems and also to speed up distillation of unwanted wine. At the same time, the wine organisations want the French wine-exporting bodies to push more heavily on the export markets in order to sell at least 1 million hectolitres more of wine. They want a minimum price, they want a serious campaign to reduce stocks over the next year, and they want the ability to enrich wine with sugar to make it more to the liking of consumers who now drink New World wines.

For the medium term, the EU wine regime needs to be changed. The vineyards need to be adapted to the new reality (the plan is to restructure 13,000 hectares a year), with, of course, the accompanying grants, while at the same time giving grants for grubbing up of vines. More important is the need to promote French wines, especially on the export market, giving more money for this, as well as increasing the communication of the beneficial aspects of wine among the French public, through what is going to be called a Conseil de la Modration.

All these measures - to the French, at least - are very understandable. They involve huge dollops of state help without involving much financial commitment, or any other commitment for that matter, on the part of the growers. There is a recognition that France needs to promote its wines better, but no recognition, in this document at least, of the fact that promotion goes hand in hand with quality. Explaining the French wine regions, and appellations, to consumers who are pulling a €3.99 bottle off the shelf seems meaningless to me; what France needs is brands. A year ago, the US producer Gallo launched Red Bicyclette, a range made by the Sieur d'Arques cooperative in Limoux. That's what France needs, not more expensive, inefficient state intervention.

Just in case this all seems too depressing, here is some good news from Bordeaux. The Bordeaux Tourist Office is busy arranging some fascinating tours of the Mdoc vineyard, letting visitors into some of the secrets of the chteau - learning about the different grape varieties in Bordeaux at Chteau d'Arsac, about vinification at Chteau Lynch-Bages and about ageing and maturing wine at Chteau Pichon-Lalande. All three places are also the home of exhibitions: Arsac of outdoor sculpture, Lynch-Bages of paintings by Jiri Kolar, Pichon-Lalande of fine glass. The shows run until 30 September, details from the Bordeaux Office of Tourism (tel +33 556 00 66 24). Go to them to see that not all of French wine is so mired in crisis it can't forget the better things of life.