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To The Rescue

The French government is dipping into its pockets to promote its wine exports, just as French wine names are gaining better protection in the US. Might this turn the tide for France’s beleaguered wine industry? asks Jon Rees

It’s a war on two fronts for the French wine industry but after years of losing market share to the wines of the New World, there are signs that France’s finest export is beginning to gain some ground. Now France’s wine producers are fighting back, with the aid of the French government, naturellement.

In the US it is involved in two key campaigns. First, there is its Fall for French Wines advertising and promotional campaign aimed at persuading American consumers that there is a French wine for everyone. Secondly, it is part of the campaign built around The Center for Wine Origins, supported by the EU and two wine trade groups. Meanwhile, in the UK, France has increased its marketing and promotional spend by 40% to support its wines in their hitherto losing battle against wines from the New World.

For the Fall for French Wines campaign in the US, the Wines of France group, which is supported by the wine growers with the backing of the French government, will be spending $4 million on its promotional campaign. The aim is to dispel the lingering notion that French wines are just for the wealthy and for those who “know” wine. So Sheri Sauter, the spokeswoman for Wines of France and only the second female Master of Wine in the US, has chosen 45 wines priced between $7 and $20 which will feature in 500 instore promotions and tastings in key markets across the US from New York to California.

 America the beautiful

The campaign will include radio commercials and an emarketing campaign aimed at reaching one million consumers. There is a nod towards France’s traditional antagonism towards George W Bush’s America in the campaign since a percentage of all wine sales realised during the promotion will be donated to the America the Beautiful Fund for the upkeep and maintenance of precious landmarks and landscapes in the US.

There is something for the slightly more self-interested consumer, too; a prize for the best piece submitted by a consumer on “the first time they fell for French wine”, a $20,000 trip for four to tour the vineyards of France.

The French wine campaign in the UK was going to be 25% bigger than previous years, according to Sopexa which is the organisation set up to promote French wines abroad, but then the French government directly intervened to make it a 40% increase.

France is still the biggest supplier of wine to the UK since we imported about 2.6m hectolitres of it last year. But it has been overtaken by wines from Australia in sales through offlicences and supermarkets and, in fact, it is only just ahead of the US.

The French finally recognise that they have to learn from the success of New World wines in some key areas, in particular, clarity of labelling and vigour of marketing. But it is determined not to sacrifice pride and heritage which is an integral part of French wines.

Its British campaign, focused on a promotional push in supermarkets, has been effective and Sopexa reckons an extra 10m bottles of French wine will be sold in 2005 in the big supermarkets and off-licences, which will be an increase of about 10%.

The US campaign backed by the EU is altogether broader and stems from a significant change in the pattern of trade between the US and the European Union. It concerns the seemingly endless wrangles, and not just between the US and the EU, over geographic origin, or appellation, of wine.

Name calling

Can “Champagne” be called Champagne if it does not come from the vineyards of the Champagne region of France and instead comes from California? Can the grapes in a “Burgundy” ever come from outside the region of the same name in France? Conversely, should a Chardonnay ever be called a “Napa” if it was produced somewhere other than the northern Californian valley of the same name?

However, in a preliminary accord signed this autumn in Washington, the Bush administration’s trade negotiators agreed to ask Congress to limit the use of 17 semigeneric names used in wine labelling, including Rhine, Sauternes and Tokay. In return, European trade officials agreed to accept that US wineries may use these names, (including Port and Champagne,) for sale within the US, even if they are made using practices which European wine producers have traditionally shunned, including flavouring wine with oak chips in barrels.

More than half the sparkling wines sold in the US are called Champagne, even if they are not from the region in France.

This is an agreement which eases trade in a huge market: the US exported nearly $500m of wine to Europe last year, while the Europeans sent $2.3 billion of wine to the US in return.

It is not just the European side of the Atlantic which is worried about the casual use of long-venerated wine names, either. For instance, earlier this year vintners from California, Oregon and Washington who were worried that the value of their wines could be harmed by the casual adoption of their labels by winemakers in less wellregarded wine regions of the US, signed a document called the Napa Declaration of Place which set rules for the use of regional appellations from these states. Napa Valley Vintners has filed petitions against companies from as far away as China which have used the Napa name on wines that do not contain Napa Valley grapes.

Now the Center for Wine Origins, which is mainly funded by France’s Champagne producers, Portugal’s Port makers and the Sherry industry as well as the EU, has become involved, too. It plans a threeyear campaign to educate consumers on the distinctions between, for example, French Champagne and its US counterparts. The over-arching aim is to build a consumer movement for truth in labelling, even while the politicians on both sides of the trade negotiations focus on the need for clearer and more stringent labelling.

France’s wine industry appears to be belatedly getting its act together in time to take advantage of the liberalisation of international wine markets, and the two factors could return French wine to its former glory. db

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