Spirited Ideas from France

A spirit of optimism is noticeable in the French wine industry. With new concepts and new styles as well as authentic wines characterised by their origin, French wine-makes have arrived on the globalised market. They have learned that only constant re-orientation and adjustment of the product line to the market requirements can secure France’s success on the international wine market in the long run.

Over the course of the past years, the French wine industry has initiated a renewal process at several levels to adapt to the changed market conditions. Vineyard areas were restructured, reforms were initiated, the product range was adjusted to current market requirements, and communication was improved. For example, the AOC system reform provides for a more transparent approach to the varied and complicated appellations and simplifies the product range. Meanwhile, with a higher degree of flexibility in their oenological practices, producers have repositioned their wines in the medium price segment without losing sight of the traditional values of French viticulture such as terroir, tradition and savoir-faire. A broad spectrum of quality and ordinary table wines as well as a selection of grape varieties and brand-name wines satisfy various market segments.

As of 2005, the export numbers for French wine have been rising again. While England and the USA have exercised restraint in the purchase of expensive French wines since the financial crisis, very expensive wines from France are exported to India or Chine, i.e. markets that did not exist ten years ago. A comparison of the major export markets shows that, amongst the ten most important export markets, mainly Canada, Japan and Germany show the best development in terms of value. According to the market research group GFK, French wines won market shares in the German food and beverage trade for the first time in 2008, after many years of decline. Nevertheless, during the first half of 2008, the amount exported to Germany declined by 3.7 percent as compared to the corresponding period in the previous year, while the value increased by 12.6 percent during the same period.

The French 2008 harvest was as small as never before in the past 15 years. The harvest volume is estimated at 43 to 44 million hectolitres. During the past decade, the average annual volume amounted to 54.4 hectolitres. Yet, the quality is promising and – in some regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne or Southern France – even extraordinary. The new vintage to be introduced at ProWein is being highly anticipated. To France’s wine producers, ProWein is an indispensible trade fair for the international export business. “Not only German customers visit the Vinergie stand. Our French partners also welcome many visitors from neighbouring countries,” explains Wolfgang Zuzok, Managing Director of Vinergie in Düsseldorf, a distribution association made up of the major cooperatives from the Rhône, Provence, South-west France and Burgundy regions. Willem Schiks, Export Manager of the marketing organisation Terroirs et Talents, which supplies several domains from the Beaujolais region, comes to Düsseldorf mainly because of customers from the Netherlands, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. “If ProWein were strictly for the German market, I am not sure that I would participate this time,“ he expresses openly.

A fresh breeze for the wine shelf
The exhibitors along with SOPEXA Paris, with its re-designed French shared stand, create a fresh breeze in hall 5. With modern concepts, new wine styles and fresh ideas, especially in the area of packaging, the exhibitors show that France has more to offer than venerable Chateaux and traditional viniculture. Take-home wines are offered in single units of 25 cl in appealing tetra-packs or a decorative aluminium cans. For big parties, the already established bag-in-boxes (BiB) with their sophisticated designs or new, funky shapes are a great idea. The increasing raw material prices should guarantee continued solid development for the BiB segment, as wine of the same quality is relatively cheaper in a BiB than in the 0.75 litre bottle. Classic wine bottles are being replaced more and more by light-weight PET options. Brand-name wines are being adorned with fresh, unusual labels, which often provide suggestions as to the suitable occasion for consumption. Grape variety wines are staying on trend, whereby France is playing a bigger part in the global competition with the newly admitted wines without information on origin. André Barlier, Acting Director of Viniflhor (French office for fruit, vegetables, wine and horticulture) is viewing this as an opportunity. “The AOC wines continue to be the major flagships and export drivers of the French wine industry. But beyond these, producers are looking for further export opportunities. For example, the current vins de pays are positioned on the market mostly as wines with geographic origin. In addition, many producers are very interested in production and marketing of the new category, Vins de Pays Vignobles de France, i.e. the ordinary table wines that France may export without a specific designation of origin. As France has the necessary vineyard areas as well as competent producers, projects are underway to launch this type of wine and to develop brand-name wines for this new segment.

Wine trends in France
In the niche segment, the French are emphasising autochthonous and thus unusual and unknown grape varieties that offer interesting taste alternatives to the Cabernet Sauvignons or Chardonnays produced all over the world. “France is returning to its original strengths such as origin and terroir," Wolfgang Zuzok reports happily. This return is happening at the right time, since retailers are asking for more characteristic, typical wines from the individual regions.
Wines from France‘s classic appellations that meet broad consumer demand at a reasonable price are guarantors for success. One impressive example is Les Grands Chais de France. “To us, it is very important to produce wines that offer consumers joy and a good taste experience at competitive prices," confirms Francis Dieudonné, Commercial Managing Director of the group. The company, located in the Alsatian village of Petersbach is internationally active and is a market leader in many countries. To supplement the brand-name business (the major international brand Chenet), Grands Chais de France also emphasises the appellation wines from its ten company-owned wine estates at ProWein. “Thus, we optimise our presence with our customers as an all-round supplier and prove our competency in the area of wine production,” Dieudonné continues.

France is reacting to the trend towards organic wines with a steadily growing product range. Within the past decade, the area for organic wine production in France has quadrupled. “The interest of French organic wine producers in the German market has risen enormously,” confirms Alain Réaut, President of the French Association of Organic Wine Makers, FNIVAB (Fédération Nationale Interprofessionnelle des Vins de l'Agriculture Biologique). He views the forecast for the French organic wine production as generally positive, since it is the organic wines that, thanks to the way they are produced, actually deserve the designation vin de terroir and can distinguish themselves among the broad French product line thanks to their excellent quality and multi-facetted aroma range.

The French crémants, which are produced in seven growing regions according to the traditional bottle fermentation method, attract more and more consumers thanks to their excellent price-taste ratio. The crémant has not only established itself as an alternative to champagne but as a distinct class of sparkling wine. The line of crémants rosé is expected to attract considerable attention at ProWein.

Small and large under one roof
As in the previous year, more than 400 suppliers of French wines will be present in 2009. Visitors may get a quick overview of the current product range offered by French exhibitors at the tasting zone “France 2009” in hall 5, which features the best 100 French wines at the trade fair. In addition, there will be guided tasting events at the shared stands of the Alsace, Provence, Rhône, South-west France, Loire or Bergerac regions, for example. The largest association, Intersud, which combines all wine qualities from Languedoc and Roussillon under one roof, is presenting in Düsseldorf for the second time. The big players from the French regions (including Les Grands Chais de France, Groupe Castel, JeanJean, Val d’Orbieu, Ackerman Remy Pannier, Skalli, Yvon Mau) hoist their flags, as well as the leading cooperatives or the innumerable small châteaux and domains, where the winemakers introduce their own products. Major trading companies (including Grands Vins Gironde, Borie Manoux, Ginestet, Cheval Quancard) from Bordelais are represented, as are the Vignerons independants d’Aquitaine, the independent winemakers. And last but not least, small and large champagne producers are again exhibiting at ProWein.

The author, Brigitte Engelmann, is a freelance journalist who writes for various German and French wine publications.