A year in a French vineyard: March 2019
Jonathan Hesford wonders if French vignerons are missing a New World trick
French versus New World mega wines
A year in the vineyard
I was back in the UK for Christmas and browsed the supermarket shelves for some wine to drink.
There were very few French wines on offer and only generic labels like a Côtes du Rhône, a Cahors or a Minervois. Meanwhile the selection of New World wines was much bigger. Dozens of labels from Australia, South Africa, Chile and the USA.
However, when I looked at the New World wines on offer, there was actually very little diversity. One could chose from the popular grape varieties, such as Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, from each country and with a number of different labels offering pretty much the same thing and made by only a handful of companies.
So it would appear that the British consumer wants a choice of very similar types of wine but with different brand-names rather than a choice of different styles and flavours. Are French producers missing a trick?
Some of these wine producers have become hugely successful using this model. E & J Gallo, California’s biggest wine company, makes over 75 million cases of wine a year. As well as its own brand, it makes wine under many other popular labels such as Barefoot, Turning Leaf, Apothic and Dark Horse. As a company, it owns wineries in every other New World country, supplying Italian Prosecco and Pinot Grigio and Argentinian Malbec. It makes 2.7%
of all the wine in the world.
Yellow Tail is Australia’s largest producer. Along with Hardy’s and McGuigan, they supply all the UK supermarkets and national chains with popular Aussie wines.
These wines have the popular soft, smooth, fruity style, often with a bit of added sugar to give sweetness and hide any tannins or acidity. This style would appear to be both very popular and commercially successful.
So why doesn’t a country like France follow suit? Why doesn’t France have a Gallo or a Hardy’s making more approachable wines?
There are big companies in France, such as AdVini and Castel but they tend to own multiple wine estates rather than one giant processing plant. The main reason is that French wine is seen as a specific regional product with tight controls on the origin of the grapes.
So it is difficult for a French négociant to make a wine from grapes from multiple regions and the classic flavours of Bordeaux or Burgundy are based on their individual terroirs. In the USA and Australia, grapes may travel thousands of miles before being blended into wine and regional styles do not really exist.
The major difference between French and New World wine production is the diversity. Not just diversity of styles and flavours but also the huge number of independent producers being represented, even by supermarkets.
In France, over half of the grape growers are members of co-operatives. While the co-operatives do sell bulk wine to large négociants like Castel or Gérard Bertrand, they still retain more autonomy than a grape grower contracted to Gallo or Hardy’s.
The profits of New World wine sales end up in the hands of a small number of powerful families or corporations. In France, hundreds of thousands of families make a living from wine production.
Also, a UK supermarket is not indicative of how wine is sold throughout the world. In UK supermarkets, wine is bought centrally by a small number of buyers. So their focus tends to be on big companies which can offer wide portfolios of wines at the price-points.
In France, individual supermarkets have much more leeway in choosing wines and independent wine merchants have a much larger share of the market than they do in the UK.
While budding entrepreneurs may look to the New World wine companies for marketing and distribution ideas, similarly wine producers in Australia and Chile can only dream of developing the kind of demand that Taittinger, Château Mouton Rothschild or Louis Jadot have for their wines. Every year a new brand will emerge in the New World to challenge the popularity of an old one.
Vast amounts of money need to be spent on advertising, corporate hospitality, marketing and deal-sweeteners to keep a brand like Barefoot selling well. At the end of the day, these brands do not offer anything unique or desirable. The day will come when they are replaced. Just like Mateus Rosé and Black Tower were.
A clue to who will replace them is the third largest wine company in the world. One that few people have ever heard of, including me until researching this article. It is called Changyu and based in Yantai, China.
It is already producing nearly 16million cases of wine a year. Will the British consumer really care whether their soft and fruity red comes from California or Xinjiang? Probably not.
Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology and is the winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon – www.domainetreloar.com. If you have questions on this column, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org