Lost in France
If you take a stroll down the wine aisles of a British supermarket these days, you’re bound to be struck by the diverse origins of the offering. It’s a veritable United Nations out there, with representatives from Australia, Chile, Spain, the US, Italy and South Africa jostling for shelf space with Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and Uruguay. Twenty years ago, the picture would have been different. Those shelves would have held a far scantier range of wines, and would almost certainly have been dominated by one country: France.
France’s fall from retail grace has been a big theme of the wine trade in recent years. Sure, there are still plenty of world-beating wines at the premium end, but the country has struggled to stay afloat in the everyday sector. It’s clung on desperately to notions of terroir and appellation, only to see itself overwhelmed by waves of competitors with the ability to deliver huge volume and consistency at rock-bottom prices.
That, at least, was the picture until 2009, when the creation of a new category, Vin de France, was announced. All of a sudden the game changed. The new Vins de France could be made from grapes grown anywhere in the country. They could also be made as single varietals or blended from a broad palette of grape varieties. At one stroke, the viticultural and winemaking regulations that bound (some would say hamstrung) producers of AOP and Vin de Pays wines were loosened. From now on producers of Vin de France would be free to compete with their overseas competitors on a more level playing field.
“The creation of the Vin de France category has been one of the most positive developments in the French wine industry of the past decade,” says Tim North, UK director for Les Grands Chais de France. “It’s given us the ability to blend across regions to give us year-on-year consistency and sufficient volumes to allow us to compete with the New World.”
“Vin de France plays a fairly crucial role for us here at Direct Wines,” says buyer Beth Willard. “Of the dozen or so we have in our portfolio, one of our key brands is the entry-level Chante-Clair – there’s a red and a white that retail for around £5.99. They used to be Vins de Pays, but now they’re Vins de France, and that gives us the ability to source the best possible wines at the price point we’re looking for while maintaining quality and the right easy-drinking style.”
Given the tricky nature of the 2013 vintage in France, the flexibility of Vin de France has come as a godsend. “A lot of the Sauvignon Blanc for our Kiwi Cuvée comes from Gascony and the Loire,” says North. “The Loire makes a great base for the wine, and Gascony usually gives us about 40% of the blend.
“In 2013, yields were way down in Gascony, but because the wines made in the south of France were crisper and fresher than usual, we’ve been able to increase the proportion of those wines and reduce the Gascony element.”
Although Vin de France has now established its credentials at the volume end, it’s the capacity for innovation offered by this new classification that is exciting many buyers.
“Vin de France is brilliant as it allows producers to be creative with their blends,” says The Wine Society’s buyer, Marcel Orford- Williams. “One good example we’re looking at is a blend of grapes from the Médoc and Hermitage. It’s very much up our street.”
“I’m really looking forward to seeing some really different styles of wines coming out of France,” says Willard.
“Wines that aren’t reliant on tradition or regulation. Wines that use the fantastic old vine resources to make exciting blends that appeal to a different customer.”
At Oddbins buyer Ana Sapungiu enthuses about a Vin de France she listed last year. “It was a Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre blend made by a Burgundian producer working in the south of France. We sold it as a baby Châteauneuf-du- Pape and it flew off the shelf.”
Sapungiu warns, however, that it’s going to be a long time (if ever) before the words “Vin de France” on a label will help sell a wine. “In terms of consumer recognition, Vin de France is fairly irrelevant,” she says.
“If you’re going to stock the wines, you’re going to have to sell them on the basis of the quality of the wine and the story about what the producers are doing. The words ‘Vin de France’ come way down the list of priorities in terms of communication.”
North at Les Grands Chais de France agrees that consumers don’t understand the category – but isn’t concerned by that. “Two things they do understand are France and varietal labelling,” he says, “and that’s the beauty of Vin de France: its simplicity.”
But amid all the excitement about the opportunities afforded by Vin de France, there are warnings that there is a price to be paid for its success.
“Vin de Pays is a bit more restrictive than Vin de France, and its nomenclature can be complicated,” says Orford-Williams. “We’ll end up with appellation wines on one hand and Vin de France on the other. Most Vin de Pays will either disappear entirely or graduate to full AOP status.’