France's grape farmers are protesting again, reportedly parading through at least one wine-country village last month in a mock funeral cortege surrounding a coffin marked "Here lies the last wine maker"
You may have seen headlines in the past few days about controversy surrounding a French proposal to convert a substantial quantity of last year's wine production into industrial alcohol. This arrangement provides the wine industry a guaranteed income from surplus wine that otherwise might not be sold. The practice has been going on for many years, but it took on a new twist this year because for the first time, higher-quality wines from the country's better wine regions (designated "Controlled Appellation" or "AOC"), are destined for the distillation vats.
The French government announced today that it will apply for European Union permission to follow through with this plan, and also unveiled a package of wine-industry aid including 70 million Euros in grants and tax breaks for producers, subsidized early retirement for 500 vine growers, and permission to dig up some vineyards in wine regions that have consistently produced more wine than they can sell.
What's going on in France? Its top tier of producers still makes great wine, and few expert observers - even the most pessimistic - see any real threat to this niche. But its wine industry, overall, is in trouble. Modern France hasn't marketed its wines with anything resembling the skill with which it makes its wines. Aggressive Australian, North and South American producers have knocked France out of its traditional lead in world wine exports; and even at home, the younger French are drinking far less wine than their parents did - per capita consumption, 13.2 gallons per year, although still well ahead of the U.S. and Great Britain, is only half of French consumption in 1961.
Ripping out vines, distilling bulk wine into alcohol, and encouraging growers to retire are all part of a strategy to balance the supply and demand equation by reducing the supply. Meanwhile, a variety of other efforts are under way.
For one, the French government recently somewhat eased the country's startingly puritanical restrictions on wine advertising.
In a broader initiative, the government is also taking a fresh look at traditional French wine labeling, questioning whether the "appellation" system, with separate label requirements and agricultural and vinification rules for each of nearly 450 wine-growing regions, makes French wine too extraordinarily complicated for the average consumer to bear.
Seeking to "clarify and simplify the way French wines are marketed internationally," Agricultural Minister Herve Gaymard said last summer, regulations now encourage French "vins de pays" ("country wines," the relatively modest and affordable everyday table wines) to highlight the wine-grape variety on the label, as is commonplace among wines of the Americas and Australia.
Although this measure doesn't cover the higher-quality AOC wines, some enthusiasts fear that the urge to "simplify" in pursuit of market share could lead to an eventual "dumbing down" of even the country's greatest wines. Is this likely? I hope not. But stranger things have happened in the name of marketing.
To highlight today's discussion, I opened a Provence vin de pays from Louis Latour. Its full moniker is a Francophone tongue-twister - Domaine de Valmoissine Vin de Pays des Coteaux du Verdon - but its simple, new-style label highlights only the producer and the grape...Pinot Noir.