Image: French vineyard
Emma Vandore  /  AP
French exports of wine and spirits fell 17 percent last year.
updated 2/18/2010 5:32:00 PM ET 2010-02-18T22:32:00

French exports of expensive Champagne and cognacs suffered a record drop last year as people drank less and switched to cheaper brands in the U.S. and Britain, its biggest foreign markets.

Exports of wine and spirits fell 17 percent to $10.5 billion (7.74 billion euros)  last year, according to figures released Thursday by the Federation of French Wine and Spirits Exporters.

It marked the largest ever one-year drop and first annual decline since 2004, said Renaud Gaillard, a spokesman for the industry group. France is the world's biggest wine and spirits exporter.

The biggest drops were in pricey bottles of Champagne and cognac. Exports of Champagne fell 28 percent, the federation said. That represented a drop in volume of nearly 22 percent, to 8.87 million 12-bottle cases.

Cognac sales also suffered from the economic malaise, sliding 15.6 percent last year.

U.S. imports of French wine and sprits tumbled 22.7 percent last year, while sales fell 20.2 percent in Britain, France's second-largest market for its wines and spirits.

"Falling global demand and consumers' switching to entry-level brands weighed on our results last year," said Claude de Jouvencel, the federation's president.

De Jouvencel was slightly more optimistic for this year, saying that "2010 will not be as bad as 2009 and could return to slight growth, 5 percent at best."

"In all markets, we see a disaffection of consumers, linked to the lack of purchasing power and confidence in the economy," he said at a news conference.

People "are going out less to bars, restaurants, hotels and cafes, and are consuming at home," and buying more wine at supermarkets and favoring mid-range wines over higher-end vintages, he said.

Vodka, not a drink typically associated with France, was oddly enough the single bright spot in France's drinks industry last year. Sales of French vodka, accounted for almost exclusively by the Bacardi-owned Grey Goose vodka brand, rose 13.7 percent last year.

U.S. demand for the premium vodka drove the increase in sales, Gaillard said, as the country accounts for 70 percent of French vodka exports.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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