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Atlantic potions

Published:  18 January, 2007

As the 2005 harvest approaches, the problems for French grape growers seem to have nothing whatever to do with the state of the vines or the grapes.

Because of the dry weather throughout the French vineyard areas, the sanitary state of the fruit is good.

But of course there is plenty to complain about. First is the level of stocks. Because of the large 2004 harvest, and falling or, at best, static sales, stocks in the cellars are huge, higher than they have ever been. At the end of July, stocks were 18.6% higher than at the same time in 2004 (which followed the small 2003 harvest). With a 2005 harvest estimated to be only 6.3% lower than the 2004 harvest, that will leave growers with stocks of 93.7 million hectolitres after the harvest this September and October.

The region that's contributing most to the rise in stocks is Languedoc-Roussillon, followed by Aquitaine (Bordeaux) and Champagne. And the big problem for growers is where to stock all this wine.

Maybe nature will come to the rescue. Apart from the dry weather, which, if it continues, will certainly cut the final harvest total, further menaces have hit the vineyard. Locusts arrived in the Aveyron, while wasps are invading swimming pools in the Gard departement in the south of France. As the grapes ripen, no doubt the same wasps will invade the vineyards. Perhaps, if there is less fruit at the end of the day, they will even be welcome.

Here is a curiosity that seems to me to come into the fiddling while Rome burns' category. Having spent money and many years promoting the best appellations of Languedoc - Corbires, Minervois, Fitou and Limoux - the authorities have decided that they should all be called AC Languedoc. Yes, the old appellations will still be there as an afterthought (as in Appellation Languedoc-Minervois), but the main term will be Languedoc.

I find it difficult to understand how changes like this will be of benefit to British consumers. Maybe the belief is that these changes, which will also extend to the communal subdivisions of the existing appellations (like Minervois La Lavinire), will simplify the offering from Languedoc. I don't buy that - I just see it as an opportunity for bureaucrats to justify their salaries.

One appellation decision, though, does seem to make sense. Finally, the vin de pays for Bordeaux is getting closer to seeing the light of day. The Conseil Rgional des Vins d'Aquitaine has adopted a text that is being sent to Onivins for discussion and approval.

The idea is to have a vin de pays covering a huge region over five departments: Charente, Charente-Maritime, Gironde, Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne. Because it will extend outside the Aquitaine region, the idea is to call it Vin de Pays de l'Atlantique.

The biggest advocates of the vin de pays are Bordeaux ngociants, so that they can create region-wide, varietally labelled brands that will have the volumes necessary to create a global brand.

The creation of the vin de pays will sadly come too late for the 1,000 (out of 10,000) growers in Bordeaux who have asked for financial aid, and the 8,000 hectares (ha) (some say 10,000ha) of vines that will have to be pulled up.

The French wine industry must do more to attract new consumers, according to Denis Verdier, president of the French cooperative association (CCVF). He has been a strong advocate of reforms, and has become something of a thorn in the flesh of successive French agriculture ministers. He's also in a strong position to influence them: there are 870 cooperatives and 110,000 individual growers, and they sell one bottle in two in France.

Verdier was speaking at the annual conference of the CCVF in Narbonne in early July. While he also advocates restructuring, for him the focus must be on getting more consumers into the habit of drinking wine. With the news from the US that wine has overtaken beer as the preferred beverage, there is obviously success in the largest Anglo-Saxon market.

One of the ways in which French producers can take advantage of this growing trans-Atlantic market is by the creation of global brands. And the cooperative association is keen to encourage groups of producers to come together to do exactly this. They are also keen to build on the growth of the simpler brands that were launched at Vinexpo in June.

But with the growing crisis in worldwide wine production (notably in Australia), the French are coming up against not just fierce competition, but also what is increasingly becoming desperate competition.