The Future of French Wine, Part Deux

French Bordeaux wine from Château Pétrus, from as early as 1945 and selling for as much as 3290€ (Wikipedia)

French Bordeaux wine from Château Pétrus, from as early as 1945 and selling for as much as 3290€ (Wikipedia)

Climate isn’t the only thing affecting the French wine industry. As with almost anything in today’s hyper-globalized world, French wines are entirely dependent on the market, which is looking more and more foreign than before. With changing regulations, shifts in consumer demands, and a less-than-stellar economic climate as of late, the French wine industry is experiencing some significant changes – or trying (in vain) to resist these changes.

The bottom line is that France is producing less wine, and drinking less wine. Production and consumption rates have fallen in the past few years. While lower production is largely related to the environmental concerns discussed in my last post (as well as a government-implemented scheme to reduce surpluses in order to keep French wine competitive), the reason for falling consumption is less clear. The most feasible answer points to one of the topics so often discussed in this blog, the global recession and its effect on the French. Shorter lunches, lower salaries, higher job competition, higher unemployment rates, all seem likely reasons for French citizens to drink less wine, the same way they are increasingly turning to fast food. In fact, maybe the two are related – with 54% of restaurant spending in the last year going to fast food establishments that do not serve alcohol, French citizens are that much less likely to partake in a lunchtime verre de vin.

However, despite this decline, France is still one of the world’s largest producers, consumers, and exporters of wine. France exports $9.6 million in wine each year, mostly to the UK, US, and Germany, although Asian markets are rapidly growing for French wines. Exports, despite the relative decline in other categories, are increasing. So if production is decreasing, French consumption is decreasing, but foreign demand is increasing, how will this transform the French wine industry?

Global dominance for over a century: map of French wine exports, 1864

Global dominance for over a century: map of French wine exports, 1864 (Wikimedia commons)

Ultimately logic says that in order to stay economically viable and competitive, the French wine industry must respond to its consumers’ demands. The conflict here is the cultural disconnect between consumers and product; French wine is dictated by the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) certificate which designates certain regions, based on the cultural and geographic concept of terroir, as characteristic of specific environmental conditions and historic production methods that designate higher quality wines. Foreign markets have no cultural connection to these AOC labels and the specific qualities they imply or preserve. They are also entirely not understood outside of the European market. Therefore, one of the issues producers are running into is maintaining their AOC labeling when producing for an export market. Ultimately, some AOC regulations disallow production above a certain volume, which limits business opportunities for these wineries. They also prevent methods that could increase yield or ensure standardization; ultimately catering to export markets who don’t value the AOC label may cause producers to ditch it altogether in an economic bid for foreign consumers. With scientific advances such as analytic programs that can detect the exact data for characteristics of the grapes important in predicting their quality (such as sugar content and alcohol content), standardization is possible. Additionally, export markets dictate certain conditions that ensure sustained preservation of the wine through international travel, and taste consistency, which many producers find problematic. The documentary “A Year in Burgundy” (2007) portrays the life of several family-owned vineyards in the AOC region of burgundy, some of which lament the loss of personality and unique flavors dictated by standardization and foreign export markets. (It’s also an awesome documentary for anyone at all interested in French wines.)

Harvesting grapes by hand in Burgundy

Although many large-scale vineyards use mechanical harvesting machines, many in the Burgundy region still pick by hand in order to ensure high quality and preserve tradition (Wikipedia)

This leads to a bigger issue: is quality at stake here? In order to survive in today’s economic climate, mid-sized vineyards are more frequently attempting to appeal to foreign or mass markets; this sometimes means giving up their AOC certification, and sacrificing quality for quantity. A very good case for this trend can be seen with Beaujolais Nouveau, a light red wine made in the Beaujolais AOC. Beaujolais saw intense commercial success on the back of a particularly lucrative marketing campaign which hyped the release of the wine into a sort of contest; the third Thursday of November was celebrated and known as “Beaujolais Day” in France, the UK, and Japan. Eventually the wine became so popular and its export demand so high, that producers shirked on quality in order to meet demand.

An example of how Beaujolais has been branded and commercialized for foreign (in this case, American) markets

An example of how Beaujolais has been branded and commercialized for foreign (in this case, American) markets

The trends in the French wine industry are troubling, if not outright disturbing. They reflect a bigger picture of the agricultural scene in France, and the culinary scene throughout the world. Globalization, while bringing international cultural artifacts across the globe, may cheapen the authenticity of such products. A “French” wine can be whittled down to the most basic representation of what a truly French wine is, and no one in China or Ohio will know the difference. The demand for a cultural representation through import rather than an authentic experience is forcing industries to adapt. But, as with anything, there is hope of an emerging countermovement, and it is entirely dependent on local support and French niche markets. Ultimately, the future of French wine is facing a series of challenges that it must seriously address in order to progress and maintain its cultural history.

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