In the Press : ABC online

Sour times for French wines
By Sophie Kevany (AFP) (07/12/2005)

Driven by an infernal spiral of shrinking markets and falling prices at home and abroad, wine producers in France's Bordeaux region are searching for new ways to bring their fabled product to market.

For many – including more than a few venerable chateaux – there is no margin of error: they must adapt or die. In an industry that has lost a million domestic drinkers and a significant chunk of its market share abroad in the last five years, anything that helps insure survival is welcome.

Some winegrowers are banking on eye-catching labels designed by marketing pros, others on the 'New World' technique of plastering the name of the grape on the bottle, a near-heresy in France where primacy has always been given to place of origin.

Others are developing direct-to-consumer sales at their chateaux, or experimenting with technology-intensive wine making techniques. One vintner has started "bottling" his product in soda-pop cans.

Breaking long-standing taboos in the conservative Bordeaux wine business, increasing numbers of producers are also copying their New World competition with ultra-design wine labels highlighting familiar grape varieties such as "Merlot" or "Cabernet" more than the geographic origin.

There are 57 such "appelations" in Bordeaux alone, and more than 460 in all of France. Most are virtually unknown, even within France.

The Despagne clan, whose estate is one of the largest in the region, is considering adopting both marketing techniques.

"From an export point of view, French-style labels are a weak point," said co-owner and graphic designer Gabriel Despagne. "Our sales to traditional retailers, about 20 percent of turnover, fell by 10 percent over the last two years, and we make less money on each sale. We are considering launching a 'Merlot' and dramatically simplifying our labels," he said.

Changing techniques
Wine-making techniques are also evolving.

Alain Raynaud, owner of the Chateau Quinault in St. Emilion and president of the "Cercle de Rive Droite" (Right Bank) winemakers' association, watched prices for his wine fall by 25 percent in a few short years before deciding to adapt.

Skipping the normally de rigueur fermentation in large stainless steel or concrete vats, he put his freshly-crushed grape juice directly into oak barrels for fermentation to accelerate "the joint venture between the wood and the wine," he explained.

Another innovation – a reaction to tough drunk-driving laws – is a new alcohol reducing process.

"There are lots of problems for wine now and we need a new product to try and survive. We have to get out of this misery," said Guy Renier, owner of a vineyard in Entre deux Mers.