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French wine industry ponders shift in marketing strategy

French winemakers are gradually giving in to global marketing trends, focussing on grape type rather than the region of production. Though it may boost sales worldwide, in a country with a proud wine tradition, this shift is hard to swallow.


The French wine industry is increasingly focusing on grape type, rather than region of production, as a key factor in marketing to boost wine sales and resist competition. In a country with a proud wine tradition, the shift is not easy.

The French wine industry a source of national revenue and pride is changing to adapt to a globalised market, with labeling practices the latest focus of professionals in the field.

Whereas France has historically considered its wines to be products of various regions (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Médoc), other major wine markets frequently market wines as products of specific grape types (Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, or Malbec, among many others).

At this week’s Vinexpo Wine Fair in Bordeaux, the consensus seemed to be that France, too, would increasingly have to focus on grape type in order to boost flagging wine sales and distribution. But that shift may not be a smooth one in a country with a deep attachment to wine and its own way of producing, selling, and drinking it.

‘Terroir’ versus commercial viability

A recent study carried out by Sopexa, an international food marketing group, found that up to 60 percent of wine importers from 12 different countries across Europe, North America, and Asia were anticipating an increase in orders of “varietal” wine (wine made from a single type of grape and marketed primarily with that grape name). Varietal wines are especially sought-after in Britain, the US, and Canada. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape poised to be most in demand, according to wine experts, ahead of Pinot Noir and Merlot.

But most traditional French wines do not even display the name of the grape on the bottle. And despite a 2004 reform that authorised in France the sale of wine marketed by grape type rather than region, there is resistance to adopting that practice. According to Toulouse-based wine merchant Philippe Chaumont, “it’s easier for countries with less wine history. They can invent a system for marketing their wine from scratch. They’re trying to sell to the entire world. In France, when wine sales first started, the point was to sell to the next village over, and then the next region, and so on.”

That deeply ingrained mentality has, according to Chaumont, “penalised France in wine sales abroad, since the name of the vineyard or the region doesn’t mean anything to the average customer looking for an affordable wine”.

Popular French wine stores like the Nicolas chain, considered a middle step between supermarkets and independent wine merchants, have nevertheless been boosting their varietal wine offerings. Indeed, for France which lost its title as world’s biggest wine producer to Italy in 2008, but remains the top wine exporter – the name of a grape will be a more effective marketing tool in its competition with thriving wine markets in various countries, from Argentina to China. It’s also a way to attract a younger, less wine-savvy clientele.

But the shift toward an emphasis on grapes in selling wine is, for France, a shift away from a tradition of geographic appellation that placed emphasis on the cherished French concept of “terroir” – the impact of region, climate, and land on the taste. “Each wine should represent its particular region,” said Chaumont. “When I’m drinking a Tuscan wine, I don’t want it to taste like a Beaujolais.”

Bordeaux is generally considered the most popular appellation, or geographical indication of wine, particularly in Asian markets. Five of the ten top-selling wine regions in Europe are Italian but the top three are French.

That fact perhaps explains the feeling of independent wine merchants like Chaumont. “I understand that varietal wines are better adapted to today’s market, but wine is a cultural product,” he said. “It’s history, a past, a region, an exchange between people.”

If France ends up gravitating decisively toward an industry catered around grape types instead of regions, “we’ll all lose”, he said.

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