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France revamps wine labels to rival New World

French wine producers are set to launch a national wine label as part of a marketing strategy they hope will help them compete with New World producers and pull the industry out of a slump.
To match feature FRANCE-WINE
Backers of the new labeling say the move will make French wine simpler to understand and help winemakers adapt products to consumer tastes.Charles Platiau / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

French wine producers are set to launch a national wine label as part of a marketing strategy they hope will help them compete with New World producers and pull the industry out of a slump.

The new "Vignobles de France" label will allow winemakers to blend midrange "vins de pays" wines from different regions for the first time and then sell them under a "French" label.

Supporters say the move will make French wine easier to understand, help winemakers adapt their products to different consumer tastes, and win back customers in countries where French wines have lost out to competition.

But some producers say the plan tramples on the French "terroir" tradition, or attachment to regional produce, and successful winemakers say it could hurt their business.

"We are trying to link together the word 'France,' the name of a grape and the name of a brand on which a company can invest over the long term and earn some money," said Michel Leguay, the deputy director for technical issues at Viniflhor, the wine industry board.

For example, the change would allow a wine distributor to create a bottle of sauvignon that would be made up of wine from the sauvignon grape from different regions. This would mean they could tailor the wine according to different tastes.

"It could produce a sauvignon that has a bit of acidity, of the aroma from the Loire and a bit of roundness and a more mature aroma from the Languedoc," Leguay said.

"It could just as well be a product that has more sugar for Japan or wines that are a bit more structured for the United States with a bit more of a woody flavor."

The new idea, which won the industry's support at a meeting last week and could be implemented in the spring, aims to help France's struggling wine industry. It employs 75,000 people.

The industry is suffering because domestic wine consumption per head has plummeted to about 14½ gallons per year from 26½ gallons in 1970 and because of increased competition from New World producers in countries such as Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Australia.

Those countries use slick campaigns for marketing their wines often based around the name of the grape and have developed straightforward flavors for less sophisticated wine drinkers.

In contrast France has more than 140 Vins de Pays of different qualities and taste according to each region, and only a few wines are labeled according to the grape.

The idea of a regional identity, or terroir, in food and wine production is cherished by French people, and the new labeling system is facing some resistance.

Wine producers in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France, which produces Vins de Pays d'Oc, are furious. After a series of crises in their region, they have adapted their products for exports markets including developing "vins de cepage," or wine that is labeled according to the grape.

The Languedoc region is now the largest exporter of French wine, ahead of the more prestigious Bordeaux region, and is the fourth world exporter of vins de cepage after Australia, Chile and the United States.

"The 'vignobles de France' will have the consequence of destroying the quality revolution that has taken place over 20 years in our region," said Jacques Gravegeal, the president of the Union of Producers of Vin de pays d'Oc.

He says the change could hurt the regional economy as distributors use more wine from other areas of France.