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Do the French dislike foreign wine?

News of Languedoc vignerons protesting at the importation of cheap Spanish wine recently prompted an interesting discussion on The Connexion’s Facebook page.

A post linking to the report asked the question: “Do you make a point of only buying French wine? Or would you like to see more imported wines in your local supermarket?”.

There were many responses about the limited choice of imported wines, which tastes English-speaking people preferred and criticism of the vignerons for not accepting market competition.

British and other English-speaking consumers have become used to a choice of wines from around the world in their own countries. Here in France the choice of imported wine is poor and extremely limited.

One could say that this is down to protectionism. However, I believe it really is about demand. French consumers are simply not that bothered about the wines made beyond France.

There are two main reasons for this: the first is that France produces a huge range of wine styles covering almost every wine made elsewhere. The only exceptions would be those from other European countries with their own, indigenous grape varieties. Personally, I would love to see some good Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Spanish Mencia, or Italian Nebbiolo, and I think it’s a shame that French consumers and retailers do not share that desire.

However, when it comes to New World wines, the majority are copies or reinterpretations of French styles. For example, New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is a copy of Sancerre and Argentinian Malbec is a copy of Cahors.

French consumers are proud of their wine culture and value authenticity, hence the AOP system which protects these wine styles.

The second reason is taste. Many of the wines that are popular in the UK, Netherlands and America are simply not to the taste of French consumers. The “Anglo-Saxon palate” prefers sweeter, smoother, fruitier wines than the Gallic one.

This is mainly due to cultural differences on when wine is consumed. Wines which go well with a meal often seem overly acidic, dry or tannic when drunk without food. But slightly sweet, soft and fruity wines are a poor companion at the dinner table.

Another criticism of French wine made on the Connexion thread was that French wine is inconsistent.

I think this view comes from consumers used to buying the big brands such as Echo Falls, Jacob’s Creek and Kumala that are popular in the UK.

These wines are made with consistency in mind by blending grapes from many different vineyards and adjusting the acidity, concentration and alcohol levels to “correct” for vintage variation. That’s very different to the French concept that wines should be true to their terroir and vintage.

Faced with hundreds of bottles from a multitude of unknown producers, bearing names of obscure appellations, usually with no indication of grape variety or style, it’s obvious that the foreign consumer
is going to make choices that end up being inconsistent.

Unfortunately for them, choosing French wine requires a fair bit of knowledge about the styles typical to regions, the strengths and weaknesses of particular vintages in those regions and knowing who the respected producers are.

I think French consumers enjoy learning those things and displaying their knowledge.

Wouldn’t it be sad if French wine was dumbed down to a handful of varietal wines made by big, corporate producers simply to provide consistency for those who have not learnt the rich panoply of French wine?

Wine should be chosen for the occasion, the food being served and the people who are sharing it.

Vive la différence” I say, even though I still wish that included some of the better wines from other countries. I can do without the cheap Spanish plonk but I wouldn’t say no to a Fino or a Rioja.

Jonathan Hesford is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon

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