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France loses ground in England

Down with 6.5% in a year. In third place, after Australia and USA (i.e. California). Chased by Italy (+14.9%) and South Africa (+34.9%!).

France and French wines do not have an easy time on the UK market, judging from an interesting article by Charles Metcalfe in The Telegraph: “Zut alors! French wine sales go down the drain“.

Charles hypothesises on what may be the cause for the demise of French wines. For example tax hikes. That’s perhaps not so likely, since it hits all imports equally. Other ideas: The commonly quoted (but dubious) difficulties with French names and labels. What’s so very much more understandable with “Penfold’s Yattarna Chardonnay Victoria” than “Louis Jadot Chevalier Montrachet Les Demoiselles Grand Cru”? (really, it’s not very likely that you don’t know that it’s a Burgundy if you’re even only close to thinking of buying the latter) – if you don’t know how a Burgundy tastes the chances are hardly bigger that you’ll know what chardonnay tastes like? But the big issue with this, though, is that you don’t have much of a clue just from the grape variety – there aren’t many similarities between, well, a Yattarna Chardonnay and a chablis. Or between a pinot noir from Patagonia and one from Sancerre. No, the grape variety can be helpful sometimes (and the French have started to understand that) but it is hardly the truth behind lost market shares.

Another hypothesis in the article is that the French classification system needs reviewing, so that what is sold as Bordeaux or Sancerre really deserves the appellation. Quality improvement is of course commendable but it is hardly because of the superior quality that Australia and the US are ahead of France on the UK market.

There are probably several other factors that are equally (or more) important, much that has to do with the changing structure of the market. For example: More and more wine consumers are not in the wine producing countries. In those countries it is more important with brands compared to in the “old” wine consuming countries (e.g. in France, where they (we) drink less and less wine). And France is not very good at wine brands. In those countries it is also more common to drink wine as a “social” drink instead of with a meal. And French wines are above all food wines.

But perhaps the most important aspect (and this is just a hypothesis we have) is that more and more of all wine is sold by big retail chains in the UK: Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s etc (just like in many other countries, France included). It is easier for the wine buyers at the supermarket chains to buy from big producers, those who can deliver sufficient quantities to make it rational from an economic and logistic perspective. The issue then is that the French wine industry is terribly fragmented. There is an enormous amount of small wine producers and very few big ones (but that is of course the charm of French wines for many of us). Compare it for instance with South Africa where the whole country has about the same number of wine producers as the tiny Bordeaux appellation of Pomerol. Then it is easier to sell to companies like Tesco. (Or, for that matter, our Swedish monopoly Systembolaget, where the situation is even more pronounced – France in 5th or 6th place.)

The question then is – what should France do to survive the international competition? We’ll have to save that for another time. But if you have any ideas, do let us know!

This post is also available in: Swedish

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