Legislation loosens reins, rules on French wine

11th May 2006, Comments 0 comments

BORDEAUX, May 11, 2006 (AFP) - French wine is set for a sea change thanks to new legislation removing some of the beleaguered industry's previous taboos by allowing wood chips to be added to the drink and an adjustment of alcohol levels.

BORDEAUX, May 11, 2006 (AFP) - French wine is set for a sea change thanks to new legislation removing some of the beleaguered industry's previous taboos by allowing wood chips to be added to the drink and an adjustment of alcohol levels.

"I went much further than anyone expected," said Bernard Pomel, an official with the agriculture ministry and author of a report on which the plan is based, which could see the changes in place by September.

"This report addresses criticisms by French winemakers that they were losing market share because they did not have the right to use the same methods as their competitors," Pomel said.

French wines, particularly Bordeaux, have increasingly seen their market share eroded by competition from cheaper New World wines from countries such as Australia, Chile and California.

Even though worldwide consumption of wine has slowly crept up over the decade, France is continuing to suffer from a slump in consumption.

Last year saw a 1.6 percent drop over the previous year to 32.6 million hectolitres, or 55 litres per inhabitant per year, the Paris-based International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) said in a report last month.

And in 2005 France's loss of prestige in a market it once dominated was made clear by the export numbers, when it fell to third place sending abroad less wine than Italy and Spain.

One New World practice, long scorned by the French, of putting of wood chips into wine to provoke an oaky flavour, rather than storing the wine in wooden barrels, will be made legal "any day now", said Georges Pierre Malpel, of the agriculture ministry.

This will apply to wines outside the rigid Appellation d'Origine Controlée (AOC) system of quality control.

But the 40-page report released in March also includes suggestions that the AOC system, controlled by Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), will need to implement to soften its demands on winemakers.

Wood-chip suppliers are already stocked up, ready for the day the documents are signed, first by the European Union and then by the French government.

The vast difference in cost, about 10 times less than using barrels, is the main attraction. Barrels currently cost about EUR 66 per 100 litres, while chips are just EUR 5 per 100 litres.

Barrel aging however will remain the preferred method for top quality wines.

"Adding aromas to a wine has nothing to do with the evolution of a wine in a barrel, which benefits from oxygenation, from an exchange between air, wood and liquid," said François Brissot, a Margaux winemaker.

"It is the difference between something that is married together and something that is superimposed."

Another proposal in the Pomel report is to allow winemakers to adjust alcohol levels, raising the question of whether one day the addition of water will be allowed.

"Adding water to wine is seen as a fraud here. But it is done in other parts of the world, so France has to take this into consideration. Who knows, in the future, why not?" said Roland Feredj, director of Bordeaux's regional wine body, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vins de Bordeaux.

The technique is widely used in California, where tanks in which the water is mixed into the wine are known as Jesus Tanks.

Lowering alcohol levels is an increasing demand from health-conscious consumers who like richer flavoured wines, but don't always welcome the correspondingly higher alcohol levels of 14 and 15 percent.

But for the moment reducing the alcohol levels in French wine will be limited to allowing producers to experiment with different — legal — techniques such as passing wine through a membrane fine enough to filter out alcohol molecules.

"The proposals are a miracle of realism, but the real miracle will be having all this translated into fact, not just as proposals," added Feredj.

One of the main aims of the report however is to set out two major choices for French wines, one consumer-led for easy drinking, and the other more sophisticated producer-led, with neither suffering from any stigma.

The two main wine producing regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy will be encouraged to produce more consumer-led wines, that compare with new world mass market products.

But for classic Bordeaux brands like Margaux, Petrus or Haut Brion — the addition of oak chips, or reducing of alcohol remains unthinkable.

Other restructuring measures proposed in the report are aimed at helping consumers better understand French wine classification by reducing it to three categories: AOC, for the higher end and vin de pays and vin de table, for lower range.

The use of a new "Vin de France" logo will also now be encouraged on all wine labels, along with the labelling of popular varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, another idea taken from new world wine labels.

A cash injection of EUR 90 million will also provide subsidies and loans to wine makers.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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