In Quality Market
France's Wine Producers Face Growing Competition

International Herald Tribune

November 8, 1979
(Part 2 of 3)

Top-quality wines are not produced exclusively in France. In the second of a three-part series, the IHT looks at other countries that produce top-quality wines, some of which might do well in the French market.

These days, the most talked-about rivals to French winegrowers are those of California, who have made enormous progress in the last 15 years. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the French may sometimes wish that Californians never had tried to make wine from such French grapes as the Chardonnay, the (white) Sauvignon and the (red) Cabernet-Sauvignon.

Spain and Italy also produce some excellent varieties, as do West Germany, Australia and South Africa, but California is France's most impressive rival.

In countless taste tests on both sides of the Atlantic, the best wines from California have run neck and neck with the best French grand crus and classified first growths. Yet despite these successes, California is far from being a direct threat to France. Globcor Vin and a few Paris wine merchants have imported some of California's best wines, but these wines have a limited clientele.

With stiff prices even at the winery ($10 to $30 per bottle and up), expensive transportation costs and heavy French duties, California wines tend to be restricted to the curious French and nostalgic Americans affluent ones.

Thus, far, California cannot supply a large quality market. The best wineries tend to be quite small and most of their production is sold by subscription, before it is harvested. Even large companies such as Robert Mondavi and Freemark Abbey make their finest wines only in limited quantities. There is scarcely enough in this category for California, let alone the rest of the United States. The same is true of Australia, which makes some stunning Cabernet wines and Cabernet-Shiraz, a blend of Cabernet and Syrah grapes. Argentina produces a number of very good wines and is the sixth-largest wine producer in the world, just behind the United States. But all Argentine wine is consumed at home. The Soviet Union, the world's third-largest producer, makes only mass-produced wines for home consumption.

South Africa exports more than one-third of its production, but distance, duties and perhaps a distaste for the country's apartheid policies make it a weak contender in the French market despite some remarkable wines. The same reasons including possible distaste with the current military regime eliminate Chile's excellent Cabernets from the French market, although both they and South African wines do well in Britain and elsewhere.

Closer to home is Italy, which vies with France as the world's largest producer of wine. Italy makes some very good wines Barolo from Piedmont, Chianti classico from Tuscany and many others.

Italy is a major exporter, first in the U.S. market, well ahead of France in both volume and value. But the Italians export a lot of cheap bulk wine and so-called Chianti in straw-covered bottles. Their best wines tend to come from small producers, and the Italians keep these pretty much to themselves.

Although Italy has been in the European Economic Community since its founding and although Italian wines can be bought easily from large companies in France, most of what is sold here is bulk wine blended into French vin ordinaire. Italy does not for the moment seem to be a threat in the French market.

West Germany's famed whites, the Rhines and the Moselles, are enormously popular in their homeland but considerably less so in France. Not much is shipped across the border, partly because the French prefer their own white wines, and top-grade bottles are almost impossible to find. Some West German reds are drinkable, but not many.

There is also Greece, which has been accepted as the 10th member of the Common Market, and Portugal, a Common Market aspirant. But neither makes many top-rank wines, except for fortified (with brandy) Port and Madeira, which most wine drinkers do not consider table wines.

The one country that could give France competition in its own market is Spain, the world's fourth-largest producer of wine, much of it undistinguished and locally consumed. But three regions stand out.

Andalusia, in the south, is the home of Sherry, without a doubt Spain's finest contribution to the world of great wines. But, like Port and Madeira, it is a fortified wine used mostly before or between meals rather than with them.

There is, however, no lack of table wines, the best of which come from the Rioja region along the upper Ebro River and from Penedes, just southwest of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast.

The Rioja produces some very fine whites and reds that are highly competitive in price with any quality wine, running from about $3 to $10 a bottle according to the age and vintage of the wine. If Rioja wines have any drawback, it is a tendency to be aged too long in the barrel.

This tends to oxidize the whites, leaving them a bit heavy and flat. And while it develops a rich, complex bouquet in the reds, it also tends to leave them a bit hollow, with little lingering taste in the mouth. This probably could be corrected by reducing the aging from as much as 6 to 10 years in oak to 2 or 3 years, as in Bordeaux.

This same rather minor problem exists in Penedes. Both areas rely heavily on Spanish grape varieties such as the red Tempranillo in Rioja, called Ull de llebra in Penedes.

Wine producing in Penedes is dominated by the Torres family. Under the management of the younger Miguel Torres, this company has experimented widely with various French varieties and has come up with some outstanding successes using, among others, white Chardonnay and red Pinot Noir, usually in blends with native varieties.

These already can be bought for about 20 francs in various Paris supermarkets, and Spain is not yet a member of the Common Market.

Spain's wine industry is well-armed for entry into this giant market. Its wines sell very well in Britain, West Germany and the Netherlands. There are really no small producers or estate-bottled wines. All the small growers sell their grapes or wines in bulk to the giant bodegas (wineries) who make, age, bottle and distribute the wine. Some bodegas own vineyards but none are self-sufficient in grapes.

The largest bodegas sell up to 2 million bottles a year and have aging warehouses containing as many as 35,000 oak barrels, each of which holds 225 liters. They are in the same class as the great French Champagne firms and this will put them in a position to distribute large quantities of uniform, very well-made wines at highly competitive prices throughout the Common Market including France once they have joined it.

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Part 3: A survey of this year's crop in France.