France plans a winemaking revolution

French wine producers are planning to create a premier league of wines as part of revolutionary changes designed to haul the country’s most emblematic industry out of its deepest crisis in nearly 150 years.

As consumption of French wines plummets at home and abroad, radical reforms are being proposed to the trademark AOC (appellation d’origine controlee) system, on which France’s winemaking philosophy is based. ”We have to be more understandable for [consumers] and earn [their] confidence,” said Rene Renoux, president of the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO), which runs the AOC system.

The elite wines will be given the mark AOCE, for AOC d’excellence. The specific, detailed and often arcane rules drawn up for each AOC will also be rewritten to allow French winemakers to use the same advanced production methods adopted by their foreign rivals. For an AOC to be promoted to the premier AOCE, at least 75% of its producers would have to subscribe to the new, high-tech rules and tougher quality controls.

The proposed changes to France’s venerable, complex and hitherto sacrosanct AOC system, first devised in 1935, have already drawn fire from more conservative producers. But most seem convinced that some form of drastic action is needed.

”The international context has hit us very hard,” said Patrick Ricard, president of the French association of wine and spirit exporters Fevs. ”French wines are losing their competitive edge alarmingly fast, and the crisis is being felt in virtually every winegrowing region.”

In Bordeaux alone, where the wholesale price of a standard AOC red has collapsed by almost half over the past three years, between 600 and 1 000 small, independent producers are on the verge of bankruptcy.

Domestic sales of French wine — with the exception of rosé — fell by 5% last year, continuing a trend that began about 30 years ago. The average Frenchman drank just 58 litres of wine last year, compared with more than 100 throughout the 1960s.

Sales of AOC French wine in the crucial export market also plunged by nearly 10% in 2003, with the exception of the best-known, highest quality grand cru bordeaux, burgundies and champagne, which are still managing to book 6% to 7% sales growth a year.

A strong euro did not help, but for most industry experts it is ever stiffer competition from what the French call ”New World” wines — from Australia, California, South Africa and Chile — that is mostly to blame. Australian wine exports climbed by nearly 25% last year, while sales of United States wines abroad were up nearly 17%.

The French wine industry, an effortless world leader for decades, which employs 300 000 people and is worth about â,¬5,7-billion to the balance of payments, has woken up to the fact that the very different techniques used by New World pro- ducers to make, label and market their wines could explain the crisis hitting middle-range French wines.

The 70-year-old AOC system is based on the near-mystical belief, unique to the French winemaking industry, that the identity of a wine stems exclusively from the precise field in which its grapes were grown — the very Gallic and increasingly unsustainable notion of terroir.

This has given rise to an unholy jumble of 466 different appellations, all with their own rules governing everything from the precise geographical location (91m off and it’s not the same wine) and the distance between the vines to the type of fertilisers and additives permitted, the method of harvesting (manual or machine), bottling techniques and the size of the label.

Quality controls from one AOC to another are, to say the least, variable. An industry insider reckons that ”somewhere between 6% and 9% of all French AOC wines presently on the market are basically undrinkable”, while probably a further 20% are ”barely suitable for consumption in polite company”.

Consumers are left facing a product of whose quality they can never be sure, offered under such a variety of names and labels that, unless they really know their Macon Villages from their Passetoutgrains, they will rarely know what they are buying. — Â

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