French wine industry in ‘corking’ crisis

By Justin Orr

BBC News, Paris

Champagne dominates the French wine market Unlike the problem confronting Northern Hemisphere wine producers, those in France are not entirely sure why they are struggling to sell their product. So what are the problems, and how did it all come about? WINE PRICES At the heart of the problem is the immense cost of production, especially for the prized ‘grower’s grape’. In France, you can expect to pay between seven and 10 euros (£6.80) per litre of what the industry calls prestige red or white wines. That is well above the international average of around two euros per litre. Production problems This looks a lot like a bubble. To paraphrase the Guggenheim Museum director, Jane Grossman, “Cork costs are increasing faster than wine is being consumed.” The industry first saw the trend after the economic crash of 2008, when a shock 32% drop in demand led to a 25% rise in the price of a bottle of wine. REBRANDING France’s wine industry hopes to convince the public that wines made from blends made from local varieties will be as good as those made from the classic varieties. In fact, these blends can do a better job than a pinot noir or chardonnay – after all, you can mix them into a single wine, much in the same way you might mix a peach-flavoured pinot with a green apple-flavoured merlot to create a balanced fruit cocktail. Wine critic James Olney says this simply misunderstands the precise nature of the blending process. “Merlot is not an in-crop at Harbin or Zhangzhou,” he says. “The town is, essentially, a wine industry, and as a result they have to buy grapes to cover the traditional varieties that they could not afford to pay for.” Many winemakers believe that, like the cough syrup blamed for affluenza, the problem is overblown by the media. Last month, the French Health Minister ruled out regulations that would impose production quotas on some regions. And commentators will probably be quick to point out that it is not just the quality of the French wine which is being overlooked. There have been plenty of false dawns over the past 20 years which will have made those who believe in overly regulated wine industry far too pessimistic. They will recall the devastation wrought upon France’s “coffeemobile” area during the peak of the World Cup in 1998. By any measure, it is now moving quickly back into its old wine producing ways. We call it a wine ‘disaster’. But there could be a silver lining to this very gloomy report.

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