The New Revolution: are French wine sellers losing their heads?

By / Magazine / December 23rd, 2007 / 2

A major international corporation known historically for the production of some of the world’s finest luxury goods is facing tough times. Its most visible and respected brand is losing favour both at home and abroad. The brand’s quality hasn’t wavered, however; in fact, it may be better than ever. Nevertheless, there suddenly seems to be a lot of it to go around, and fickle consumers, with fewer and fewer ties to tradition, are tossing their gaze (and their coin) at some of the giddy upstarts. What would you do if you were at the head of the company facing this dilemma?

Sounds like a Marketing 101 project. The truth is, it’s a very real problem and, for those affected, a distressing situation. The “company” in this equation is France. The “brand”? Its wines.

Both domestic consumption and exports of French wine have been on the decline in the last few years. At one point in time, the terms “wine” and “France” were pretty much synonymous, but the vinous landscape has experienced significant upheavals of late. The C word (as in “crisis”) is being flung about liberally in the trade and the press in reference to France’s wine industry.

It appears the modern wine consumer puts more emphasis on drinkability than history, and those big, fat, jammy New World reds — with their absence of gritty tannins, their lack of edgy acidity — have seduced the new breed of wine drinker, especially the new North American wine drinker who has yet to fully get the wine-and-food connection and who loves to kick back with a goldfish-bowl-sized glass of off-dry, port-flavoured Shiraz. (Yes, I’m being snooty. Sue me.)

The French have resorted to a number of different tactics designed to win back old consumers and win over new ones. They range from the banal to the downright dangerous, with some interesting possibilities sandwiched in between. Will the Next Big Thing be a new French wine renaissance? Or should the country just stick to making cheese? Anything’s possible.

If You Can’t Crush ’Em, Join ’Em

Observing what the competition is doing and copying it is hardly a new marketing tactic. But for the French, who are more used to setting the oenophilic bar than limboing under it, it must seem like a new technique. Aussie Shiraz is where it’s at, so why not try to copy this style? France has plenty of Shiraz under vine (DNA evidence even suggests the grape actually originated there), but winemakers have been calling it Syrah and making it in a leaner, funkier style than the Aussies. In fact, many vignerons haven’t even bothered to call their wines Syrah, ducking instead behind communal names like Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, Cornas, Saint Joseph and the like. What are they thinking?

Luckily, some producers including Chantovent, Lou Black (très francais, n’est-ce pas?) and Yvon Mau (that’s better) have gotten with the program and are now cranking out plump, plush, oak-chip-infused Shiraz from warm southern vineyards. Fine and dandy. The problem here lies in sacrificing regional identity and possibly confusing the consumer. Since Shiraz is so closely linked with Australia, calling a French Syrah Shiraz may backfire. Plus, it’s not like there’s not enough Aussie to go around. Do we really need an alternative that’s, well, more or less the same? I’m pretty sure I’ve actually seen a wine labelled Shiraz/Syrah, but it may have just been a bad dream.

The Name Game

Chirpy names for wines are all the rage. The French have clued into this. Thus, we have been witness to Fat Bastard, French Rabbit, Bad Dog (touted as “Vin de Pays Dog” — arf, arf), Le Freak Shiraz (which packs a deadly one-two marketing punch by combining both the lesson learned above and a cutesy name) and Que Sera Sirah Syrah (which is just too unbelievably cute for words) on our shores. By the time this issue hits the newsstand, Ted the Mule should be on the shelves as well, at least in Ontario.

Now, the French are a hoot when it comes to things like social unrest, nuclear testing and bathing (oh, puh-leeeese, lighten up), but when it comes to wine, France = serious. Attempting to get playful seems incongruous, if not downright strained. Kinda like having a big, yellow happy face painted on the blade of a guillotine. What next, a champagne called Le Fizz?

Truth be told, many of these wines are actually pretty decent, and if a catchy name accompanied by flashy packaging helps to get the wine off the shelf and down the throats of emerging wine drinkers, then it’s all good.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Speaking of packaging, the French have taken some rather bold steps in this direction. Screw caps (screw caps!) are being seen on more and more French wines. This is a very good thing. Cork sucks (if I do say so myself). Using tree bark as a closure may be traditional, even romantic, but it’s hardly practical anymore. If France (often seen as the authority when it comes to vinous tradition) embraces the screw cap, the final barrier of resistance will have crumbled. Vive le screw!

But the corkless bottle is petit fromage compared to what the aforementioned French Rabbit is garbed in. Launched in Ontario last year, French Rabbit wines indeed have a screw cap (a plastic screw cap at that). What they don’t have is a bottle. While wine in a box isn’t really a new concept, drinkable, vintage-dated wine in a box is. This sort of package (referred to, lawsuit-temptingly, as an “ePod”) scores major points on all sorts of cost, convenience and environmental fronts. While some may argue that what’s in the box may need to move up the quality scale just a hare (God, I just kill myself sometimes), the groundwork has been laid. The Boisset people who make French Rabbit missed out on the opportunity to launch a Shiraz, but I’m sure this oversight will be addressed in the very near future.

Kill the Competition … Literally

A shadowy group of French winemakers acting under the collective handle of the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (CRAV) came up with a unique approach to eliminate foreign competitors — namely, blowing them up. It set off a bomb (seriously, I’m not making this up) at the La Baume winery last year, ostensibly to draw the government’s attention to the plight of small local producers who regard large, foreign-owned operations like La Baume as a threat to their livelihood. Needless to say, these rabble-rousers did not have access to weapons-grade plutonium and the damage caused was minimal. Such actions certainly underscore the seriousness of the downturn in French wine consumption among indigenous producers, but, as marketing tools, they aren’t that effective. Another wee issue that was lost on the “Ugni-bombers” (perhaps “vinilantes”) was the fact that La Baume had returned to French hands (it used to be owned by “Shirazistas” BRL Hardy) some time ago. Intelligence, as any good general knows, is the key to strategic victory.

Work What You’ve Got

Some French winemakers have taken a decidedly novel approach to coping with competition. Their formula is simple but highly effective: Make better wine. The reputation of French wine is based on quality. Fancy labels, loopy names, flavour-of-the-month grape varieties and slick promotions may entice new consumers to French wine but they likely won’t result in a whole lot of loyalty and repeat business. It’s probably safe to assume that producers of Bâtard-Montrachet have never contemplated changing the name to Fat-Bastard Montrachet to boost sales.

A revolution has been taking place in the south of France for well over a decade now. The Midi, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon — historically, areas that specialized in quantity — have reinvented themselves and are now perhaps the best places on earth to shop for top-quality red (and rosé) wines at bargain prices. Other regions continue to be underappreciated and, subsequently, undervalued. Few places can beat Alsace for dry, full-bodied, intense, complex and age-worthy white wines. Why aren’t Alsace wines more popular? Yeah, they tend to be white, which is a bit of a problem these days. Or maybe people think they are German (and if you think France has a marketing challenge, don’t get me started on Germany). In any case, the majority’s loss is my gain.

Relax. Be Happy. Do Nothing.

A final approach for French winemakers may be to simply kick back, haul on a Gauloise and do nothing. This laissez-faire approach has some obvious strong points. It’s cheap and plays to that oft-quoted chestnut, “What goes around comes around.” On a serious note, those new to the world of wine may be initially put off by the style of the more “traditional” French numbers. However, with time, palates mature. Eventually (perhaps inevitably), the characteristics that originally sold consumers on some of the newer styles of wine (supple, chewy fruit, borderline overripeness, low tannin and acidity, and a certain “safeness”) will become tiresome. Challenges will be sought out, and France will be right there to deliver.

The Next Big Thing? Traditional French wines.


Tod Stewart is the contributing editor at Quench. He's an award-winning Toronto-based wine/spirits/food/travel/lifestyle writer with over 35 years industry experience. He has contributed to newspapers, periodicals, and trade publications and has acted as a consultant to the hospitality industry. No matter what the subject matter, he aims to write an entertaining read. His book, 'Where The Spirits Moved Me' is now available on Amazon and Apple.

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