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Story of discontent

Published:  18 January, 2007

Vinexpo, now in its 13th edition, has been busy putting out positive noises. That's despite the disappearance of New Zealand, the reduced California presence (no Gallo, no Beringer) and the absence of official South African sponsorship.

It's also despite the last-minute withdrawal of ICE, the Italian trade body, upset at the lousy space it was being offered. The Italian exhibitors will still be there, just without any official government body. Considering ICE's reputation, both in Italy and abroad, that may be no bad thing.

But all these temper tantrums by companies and government bodies say something to me about Vinexpo's public relations. The show organisers aren't very good at massaging egos. Two years ago, many New World exhibitors were faced with a searing hot summer and failed air conditioning. This time, even though the building is new, the Australians have been lumped with Scotland, Ireland, Romania, Hungary and Thailand in Hall 3.

How can Vinexpo treat one of the major wine exporting countries so insensitively? And how can they treat the Italians so badly that ICE pulls out, sacrificing a free trip to Bordeaux, the chance to read different newspapers on their stand and a few good dinners?

If it wasn't so necessary, most of the world's wine trade would boycott Vinexpo. The trouble is that it is necessary, and I, like so many others, will be there, cursing the traffic, cursing the amount of walking and wishing it was all over.

For all you biodynamic disciples, here is a little-known conundrum. It seems that it is not possible in France, home to some of the world's major biodynamic producers, to create biodynamic vines. That's because the nurserymen, the ppiniristes, are obliged, by law, to spray their young vines against flavescence dore and other insect-borne diseases. Once the plant has left the nursery and is in the vineyard, then biodynamic practices can take over, but not before.

How to get round this dilemma? One solution is to grow certified insect-free plants under cover (the rules only apply if the vines are being grown in the open air). Another is being used by nurseryman Herv Barbisan in Alsace. As I understand it, he is working on using nematodes (currently not allowed in France, but allowed elsewhere in Europe) as a natural deterrent for the insects. That way, until the regulations are changed, M Berbisan can cut down the legally required treatments to the minimum.

As it stands, though, all those famed biodynamic producers could well be using vines that are chemically treated. So until the rules are changed, the only way to guarantee true biodynamic vines is to use field grafting.

The Bordeaux cooperatives have been meeting to cope with the production crisis.Their natural concern is to protect the interests of their members in the face of falling demand, the blocking of a part of the production and a consequent collapse in revenues.

The Fdration des Coopratives Vinicoles d'Aquitaine (FCVA) has come up with some interesting initiatives, some of which I haven't seen before. One is a very clever piece of legerdemain. Because the rules were changed last year in order to put into reserve a percentage of production, a grower who has yields over the limits loses the revenue of, say, 5% of his production. That is assuming all his production is classified as appellation contrle.

But what, says the FCVA, if that 5% is declassified to vin de table or even fruit juice? Then it can be sold as something different, and not blocked under the AC rules. And the grower is happy.

What this doesn't take into account, of course, is that lower yields are probably good for quality. If a grower only produces 50hl/ha instead of 55 or 60hl/ha, then his fruit is probably better and makes better wine. The problem is that lower yields, in the current market, don't get a sufficiently better reward.

At the end of the day, as the politicians like to say, Bordeaux will be able to emerge from its crisis only by making better wine, learning how to promote it better and creating world-class brands that can compete on the world market. Sleight of hand may offer temporary respite for a grower, but it doesn't help long-term

It's in the context of over-production that the final figures for the 2004 harvest have been released. They show that the harvest was 23% higher than in 2003, that AC wines were 18% higher and that Cognac produced 27% more in 2004 than in 2003. Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy all saw huge increases fine for Champagne and Burgundy where stocks were low, but certainly not good news for Bordeaux. Doesn't Mother Nature read the statistics?