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So it's come to this

Published:  18 January, 2007

So, finally, France looks set to compete in the world
of global wine brands. Almost everybody involved in the business of making and selling vin de pays has agreed that there needs to be a new category: Vin de Pays Vignobles de France. And the authorities are moving fast, with plans to sell the first wines under this category in early 2006.

Mind you, it has taken three years to get to this point, with many false starts, not least when many major ngociants stated that they were against the whole idea. What of course has brought everybody around is the continuing crisis in the sale of French wine and the fact that nearly 33% of a major Vin de Pays - that of Oc - is actually either being sold as cheaper vin de table or is being distilled. It's somewhat ironic then, that Vin de Pays d'Oc should be the only organisation not yet affiliated with this plan.

The rules for Vin de Pays Vignobles de France are relatively simple: the wine must come from vineyards that have been vin de pays for more than three years; the wines will be labelled varietally and will not be chaptalised.

Equally important is that the various organisations representing ngociants have agreed to buy up to 60% of the volume of these wines on long-term contracts.

For Ren Moreno, president of Anivit, the association of vin de pays and vin de table producers, the new category shows a new realism on the part of producers and ngociants: 'In the past we couldn't agree; now both sides are in agreement. They realise the need to augment the range of French wines by a new, national denomination.'

This new category is all about sales. But it will not be a completely free market, since ngociants wishing to sell the new Vin de Pays will have to submit marketing and commercial plans before they will get approval - still the French market model, not the Anglo-Saxon. But even so, Anivit estimates that up to 200,000 hectolitres will be produced in year one.

It's taken a long time.

French wine had to get deeper into crisis before heads could successfully be knocked together. But maybe, at last, French wine can turn the corner and really compete properly under the new dispensation on the world stage. One question: how much has the success of the Gallos' two French brands affected

the new sense of urgency?

Anybody in business should know who their clients are - it seems pretty obvious to me, but it isn't obvious to some Bordeaux chteaux.

This was brought home to me when I was organising a tasting of crus bourgeois recently. As is my practice (and in order to get approximate retail prices), I asked the name of an importer.

Many chteaux were perfectly happy to oblige, but there was a significant number - famous and less famous - who told me that, because all their wine was sold to ngociants in Bordeaux (sur la place de Bordeaux, as they preferred to describe it), they could not tell me who their importers are.

Now I understand that the ngociants handle the sale of the wine to export markets. I also understand that there are several ngociants handling the sale of the wine from an individual chteau. What I do not understand is why the chteaux themselves don't bother to find out (that is how it appears) who is buying their wine overseas. It is enough for them that the wine has left the chteau and that they have received their money.

Bordeaux is often accused of being out of touch. It's getting much better, and many in Bordeaux are very aware of the big world out there. But that major chteaux still appear to be ignorant of their buyers is, frankly, astonishing.

The life of a grape grower in France must be tough. Denis Verdier, head of the Vignerons Cooprateurs of France, thinks it is, and thinks it's a scandal.

He is concerned about the low prices that are being paid for vin-de-table grapes by ngociants. A hectolitre is selling for as little as e2.48 - way below any cost of production. Verdier believes that a minimum price should be set, of e3. But even this seems low.

This is not a uniquely French phenomenon. In Italy and Spain, prices for basic wines have fallen, despite a small 2005 crop. Vignerons are getting rid of last year's stocks for distillation.

Things are getting sufficiently serious for these growers, and Verdier claims that if prices don't go back to 'more normal levels, the majority of growers will be forced to stop paying their bills'.

Should market forces be allowed to work here? Should the fact that much of this wine is undrinkable simply mean that the growers should move out of grapes? Or does the importance of maintaining the social fabric of a rural society take precedence over purely commercial decisions? It's the problem of farming everywhere in Europe.