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French winegrowers in crisis as sales plummet

PARIS, Feb 22 (AFP) – Leading French wine professionals are to hold crisis talks with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin this week amid a continuing decline in sales at home and abroad, and growing anxieties about a government-backed campaign against alcoholism.

New figures have confirmed France’s weakening grip on the world market as a result of stiff competition from new producers such as Chile, the United States and Australia, the rising value of the euro and questions over the quality of many top-of-the-range “appellation” labels.

 The two principal wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy reported 2003 exports down seven and eight percent. According to Le Monde newspaper Sunday overall foreign sales of “appellation” wines fell by nine percent in the first 11 months of last year.

But equally troubling to winegrowers are statistics which show the disaffection of many French consumers.

Domestic sales fell two percent last year, and would have slumped further but for a big increase in sales of rose wine due to the summer heatwave. Reds were down 4.5 percent.

Reinforcing what Rene Renou, president of the wine committee of the National Institute of Appellations, called a beginning “crisis,” the price of vineyards in Bordeaux has fallen by 40 percent in a year and up to 1,000 growers there are close to bankruptcy, Le Monde said.

In their talks on Wednesday wine producers were expected to ask for government action to take wine out of the firing line in its campaigns against drink-driving and alcohol abuse, and also to press for a major overhaul of the wine marketing system with the possible creation of a new blue-riband mark.

Last month a Paris court caused uproar in the French wine world when it ordered the Interprofessional Office of Burgundy Wines to halt an advertising campaign on the grounds that it breached a 1990 law that strictly controls publicity for tobacco and advertising.

The case was brought by the government-backed National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism and Addiction and was the first time wine had been targetted by the so-called Evin law – confirming for many in the industry that wine is now seen as a mere commodity rather than part of the national heritage.

“They are comparing wine to a drug when it is an item of culture,” said Gilles Remoriquet, president of the Confederation of Wine-Growing Associations of Burgundy which is planning a street protest in Chalons-sur-Saone to coincide with the Paris talks.

With the Bordeaux wine growing association also being sued over a poster campaign bearing the slogan “Let’s drink less, let’s drink better,” a Socialist senator from the wine-producing southern department of Aude has introduced a bill which would specifically exclude wine from the Evin law.

Meanwhile there is growing pressure to re-vamp the system of labels so that wines of genuinely high quality are not damaged by association with the growing number of “appellation” wines that are recognised as being below par.

“Between 15 and 20 percent of ‘appellation’ wines do not deserve to be classified as such. They are real pig-swill that continue to enjoy the label because no politician wants to take the responsibility of changing the rules,” said Jean-Luc Roche, chief wine purchaser for the nationwide Leclerc chain of supermarkets.

Designed to safeguard the reputation of the top vintages, the system allows wine growers to use the prized “appellation d’origine controlee” (AOC) label if their vineyards lie within clearly delineated geographical areas. But the growing success of non-AOC wines from southwest France is proof that the mark has lost much of its cache.

Among ideas being mooted to restore the image is the creation of a “super-AOC” label, for which only the best wines would qualify. Many Burgundy and Bordeaux producers also favour a recent recommendation made in an official report for a new French “vins de cepage” label.

Under this proposal, lesser quality AOC bottles would be improved with the addition of better wines of the same grape variety (cepage) grown in non-AOC areas. However the idea is opposed by winegrowers in the southwest, whose strong performance outside the AOC system is the only ray of light against the prevailing gloom.


                                                              Subject: France news