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Low yields, low prices

Published:  18 January, 2007

The harvest of 2005 will certainly not be as big as that of 2004 - the long dry spell over parts of southern France has seen to that. But the authorities at INAO are making sure that even this quantity is reduced, by setting lower yields this year.

Reacting to the glut of wine on the world market, INAO has demanded that all the major regions cut production, particularly of red. So the permitted yield in Bordeaux

is down by 4hl/ha, that in Beaujolais by 5hl/ha, and in Cahors a massive 10hl/ha.

In whites, Muscadet has been told to reduce its yields by 5hl/ha.

At the same time, growers have been told that they cannot add as much sugar to increase the alcohol levels as in past years. Where it used to be possible to chaptalise to increase alcohol by up to 2.5%, now a 1.5% increase is all that will be allowed.

The hope is that lower yields will lead naturally to higher alcohol without the assistance of the sugar bags.

It is positive to see a realistic attitude being taken by INAO. Maybe the reductions are not enough, but they should show the growers who would normally produce as much as possible and take high-yield, low-sugar grapes to the co-ops, that the world is changing.

If you happen to be going to France in the next week, pay a visit to some of the supermarkets. The annual Foire aux Vins season finishes on 8 October, and prices this year are down. It's a response to the glut of wine, the desperation of producers to unload stock and the fact that supermarket buyers are tough bargainers.

In fact, E Leclerc supermarkets, which created the whole idea of Foire aux Vins 25 years ago, has adopted as a slogan this year: A good wine doesn't have to be expensive, and an expensive wine is not necessarily good' - a motto, by the way, that ought to be on the cellar wall of every collector of cult and garage wines.

To give you some idea of price, the cheapest wine at Intermarch is e1.80 (1.20), 60% of Leclerc's wines are less than e8 (5.70), while 80% are under e15 (10.70). It's big business, too: Carrefour turned over 100 million bottles in its 2004 promotion; Leclerc, 223 million bottles. And, as any browser of supermarket shelves in France will know, some of the wines can be bargains if you are prepared to choose carefully. Lesser vintages of classed-growth Bordeaux (2002 for example), at the right price, are still bargains in my book.

But independent wine retailers are not happy. For a start, they can't afford to match the price cuts. These retailers are also unhappy at the thought of great wines being sold at cut-throat prices: It's very sad to see great Bordeaux names being knocked down at such prices in a supermarket,' a Bordeaux retailer told me. The chteaux shouldn't allow this to happen.'

Personally, on a journalist's wage, I'm delighted to see some fine-wine bargains at low prices. I don't think it does fine wine any harm to be more accessible. Once a wine drinker has a taste for good wine, their critical faculty will be honed, and they will be more likely to be aware of the failings of some of the really cheap wine on offer. Maybe if classed-growth Bordeaux was offered at cut prices in British supermarkets, the days of the 3.99 bottle would be numbered.

The French wine exporters at last have something to cheer about. The agreement with the United States to ban all those terms like Chablis, Burgundy, Champagne and Sauternes, along with 13 other European wine names that have been so abused, has been welcomed on both sides of the Atlantic. In return, the EU has agreed to recognise American wine names such as Napa and Sonoma. With its position as the number-one market for imported wines in the world, and its dominant position in fine-wine imports, the United States is of major importance to Europeans, just as Europe is vital to US exporters: two out of every three bottles to leave California end up in Europe.

The French, who greatly influenced the negotiations, of course, wanted more than they got. They wanted to be able to approve all foreign geographic wine names before the wines arrived in Europe. And they even wanted to protect the word vintage'. It seems more realistic ideas prevailed and compromises were reached.

I'm delighted that eventually I will see the back of the famed Hearty Burgundy and of American wine lists that put the cheapest, tank-method sparkling wine under the category of Champagne.

To me, it's less about protectionism than about telling a customer what he or she is really getting - and about not passing something off as what it is not.