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French wine will soon be "like Coca-Cola", a senior French wine official said this week. The statement was not a complaint. It was a boast. A few years ago, such a declaration by a senior figure in the French wine industry would have been equivalent to the Vatican questioning the virgin birth of Christ. This week the reaction of the French wine world was muted, even resigned and, in many cases, positive.
The heretical declaration was made by Valérie Pajotin, the director of the French industry's new, international marketing arm, Anivin. What she announced, more precisely, was that, in the near future, many – possibly most – low and medium priced French wines will be mass produced and will have a uniform taste. Alongside the jumble of château names and "appellations" on the supermarket or off-licence shelf, there will be a relatively small number of instantly recognisable brands under the portmanteau title "Vins de France".
At the top end of the market, and even in the middle price range, the great, local wine names and traditions will survive or even thrive. No one is suggesting that Château Rothschild Lafite should become part of a new label called, let us say, "Regrette Rien". On the other hand, thousands of French wine producers who now make their own wine, or contribute to village co-operatives, will be encouraged (some fear, forced) to sell their grapes to large wineries or wine factories.
There, the wine would be custom-designed to appeal to the middle or low market tastes of the young wine drinkers in northern European countries, and especially Britain (still the biggest market for French wine outside France). The wine will be marketed by its grape variety – such as Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir, or Cabernet Sauvignon – not by its local wine producer or place of origin. It will be of high, consistent quality. It will be clearly branded with cheerful, simple labels like many Australian and other "New World" wines.
"Assembling wines in this way ensures a consistency of quality which will retain consumer loyalty by offering a constant taste from 1 January to 31 December," Ms Pajotin said. "It is what happens with consumer brands, such as Coca-Cola." In other words, to try to cope with a deepening crisis in French wine exports – and a glut of cheap and mid-price wine in the world – France is throwing in the towel and going Australian. This is not a complete revolution. Some French wines are already marketed by their grape variety. Some are even designed by itinerant Australian wine-makers to appeal to foreign markets.
A government commission on the future of the French wine industry made all these points nine years ago. Since then there have been a series of angry battles between reformers and traditionalists.
Three years ago, the French government proposed a three-tier solution. The very best and most expensive wines would be placed in a new "dream" or luxury category. The remainder of the appellation contrôlée wines would have some of their restrictions relaxed and their quality control increased. The bulk of the industry would produce, broadly-speaking, "Australian" French wines with a relatively few, simple labels.