With names like Prickly French and Villa Chambre d’Amour, French wine producers are casting aside traditional regional appellations in pursuit of a new generation of label-conscious consumers.
Behind the trend lies a ferocious fight for market share with New World wines in which the US is about to become the next battleground.
So far, only a few of the wines that use Vin de France (wine of France) as a country appellation have trickled into the US because of a dispute about what producers can put on the label.
However, that is set to change with US authorities having finally agreed to allow wines using a country as their appellation of origin — rather than a region like Beaujolais — to also carry the date of the vintage.
“The major French brand wines want to come to the US when they can put the vintage and the varietal on the label. They’ve been waiting for two years,” said Valerie Pajotin, director of ANIVIN, the communications arm for Vin de France.
A varietal wine is labeled with a grape variety, like Merlot, and increasingly it is this that guides consumer selection around the world, rather than the precise origin of the wine.
Global demand for France’s top wines continues to outpace supply, but the trend toward varietals has made life harder in the middle market, with non-French consumers often finding themselves baffled by labels which are the result of a combination of complex rules and centuries of tradition.
“Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet are the hot varietals right now,” said Pierre-Yves Robin, senior wine buyer for US retailer Total Wine.
Yet consumers also see a vintage as a badge of quality in wine, which made US retailers reluctant to import French varietals without the year on the label.
The new regime came into force last week and French producers are hoping this will open the floodgates for the 148 Vin de France wines already approved for sale in the US$30 billion US market.
Flexibility is the raison d’etre for the Vin de France category.
“There are two advantages: one technical, one commercial,” said Emmanuel Montes, export director for Les Domaines Auriol in the Languedoc region of southern France. “Technically, it allows me to blend wine from different regions in France and create a unique product with homogenous quality, labeled with the vintage and the grape variety.”
“Commercially, it puts us in competition with the big wine companies in the New World,” he added.
Primarily targeting export markets, the Vin de France category came into existence in 2009 with the simultaneous demise of vin de table, or table wine, a category which few were sad to see go.
The challenge has been to convince consumers that it is more than plonk with a snazzy label and both exporters and importers believe vintage dating will help achieve that goal.
“Vintage connotes quality,” Robin said.
Eric Roure, enologist at wine merchant LGI in southern France’s Carcassonne, agreed.
“If there is no vintage on the label, the consumer says: ‘Hmmm, this is just a table wine, it’s not a quality wine,’” he said. “Our Prickly French varietals with the vintage are selling really well in the UK and the Netherlands.”
Despite barriers to the US market, Vin de France production has grown from 300,000 hectoliters in 2009 to 1.23 million hectoliters last year.
Castel, the giant French drinks company, produced 110 million bottles of Vin de France last year. While only 328,593 bottles were sent to the US, China took 14 million.
Smaller operators see an opportunity to attack specific export markets with tailored products.
“The Chinese always want exclusivity,” Philippe Carrant of Wines Overland said. “We’re selling our Vin de France private brands Lafleur Gloria in China for exclusive distribution.”
In Sweden, Les Domaines Auriol won a contract with the state monopoly for 1 million hectoliters of organic wine.
“That was not easy. We had to go to 80 growers,” Montes said. “We couldn’t have done it without the Vin de France label.”
Quality also comes into play.
“Vin de France was created for the big operators, but for us, a small operator, it’s given us the opportunity to create a high-quality brand wine,” Roure said. “Our idea is not to take the basic wine from each region, but some of the best — the best of what France can do. This is what we’ve done with Prickly French.”