For the French, wine is part of their national identity. Tough times in the vineyards are a blow to national pride and frustrating to those looking to maintain the country's leadership in an evolving world market.
Some things, like the glut of juice on the world market, are beyond the control of French winemakers. Others, like modernizing the marketing of French wine, are wrestled with as if someone was suggesting the colors on the French flag should be changed to green, purple and black.
French wines have long carried the name of their appellation as their key identity. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and other regions have loyal followings. If your wine comes from one of the "in" regions, things are mostly good. If you are outside of one of these areas, it's not so good. Things are particularly tough on the mid-level vin de pays wines. The French Agriculture Ministry recently released a report that showed 70 per cent of winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon region lost money last year. In Bordeaux, 80 percent of the vineyards were in the black.
Now winemakers from a number of regions are considering joining together to blend grapes and market product under a 'Vineyards of France' label. Cheap table wines are already blended under a "Product of France" designation, but this proposal would include mid-level quality wines. The thought is that "France" on the label will be a stronger selling point on the world market than designations like Cotes du Rhone. The French National Office of Fruit, Wine and Horticulture holding a meeting on the proposal this week.
Meanwhile, the French Wine Co-operatives Union is frustrated by delays at the European Commission, which is considering proposals to reform government policy towards wine across the European Union. Changes are needed since there is a surplus estimated at 1.5 billion liters of wine held in storage tanks around Europe. We could all help out by ordering a bottle of French, Italian, Spanish or other European wine at dinner tonight. However, with the equivalent of 3 billion bottles backlogged on top of the stocks already in restaurants, retail locations, distributor warehouses and in-transit along the import-export trail around the world, we would need to build up a major collective hangover before the situation solved itself.
Winemakers are angry because it has been a year since the European Commission held hearings on the matter. A report was expected in December, but has now been delayed until June or July. At that point, the EU Parliament will go on break and not likely discuss possible legislation until the Fall -- just in time for another harvest season to be winding down.
One proposal that has been floated is to rip out 400,000 hectares of vineyards. This has not pleased winemakers in France, Italy or Spain because they believe they would have to shoulder the greatest load in the reform package. While this debate goes on, wines from the United States, Australia and South America are making further inroads around the globe. It will take more than reducing the supply of European wine to solve the problem.