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France No Longer Defines Global Wine Culture. Can It Adapt?

Beret, baguette, and bottle of wine. It’s a caricature we all know well. And without that bottle? Well, it just wouldn’t be French, now would it?

Wine and France are synonymous in our collective cultural understanding of the world. And it used to be that if one wanted to become a great winemaker — or any sort of authority in the wine realm — all roads went through France. The country’s acclaimed regions and lionized producers were considered the apex of wine and cultural aspiration.

Likewise, the country has dominated not only global markets and winemaking methods, but global plantings over the past century. Almost all the wine grape varieties we’ve come to know and love — Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, just to name a few — are essentially of French origin. They’ve sat atop the wine world for so long now that continued French dominance is assumed.

But the world has become smaller, and that once infallible beacon of vinous virtuosity no longer stands above all others. Competition is surging, drinking habits are changing, and today’s more adventurous consumers thirst for novelty.

Despite recently setting a new export value record, French export volume in the first quarter of 2023 hit its lowest point since 2010. Now at a crossroads, the livelihood, identity, and pride of French winemakers is under threat from an interconnected world some are reluctant to recognize. While protests boil over and lawmakers rush to respond, the spiritual leader of wine finds itself in a previously unthinkable position: It no longer dictates and defines global wine culture. And as the monopolistic aura the country once held dissolves, France has no choice but to adapt.

Smashed Cava, Cheap Imports, Surplus Wine

On Oct. 19, 2023, a conspiratorial band of aggrieved southern French vintners took action. In a scene now well documented in the wine industry, the furious mob of winegrowers — numbering around 500 — hijacked incoming trucks near the Spanish border. But this wasn’t some kind of “Goodfellas” heist. It was a statement to the French government and the world.

Thousands of bottles of Cava — Spain’s inexpensive alternative to traditional French bubbly like Champagne and Crémant — met their demise in the melee, as did a tanker full of Spanish red. Tires burned, and as the thirsty highway pavement soaked up this unusually boozy precipitation, the angry crowd demanded reparations from Paris for the ongoing economic damage inflicted on their vineyards and wineries by cheap imports. And though the French government may have limited means to remedy the situation — outside of skirting EU law — the immense frustration has nonetheless taken aim at its stereotypical targets.

“Despite the inadmissibility of violence, I find myself resonating with the sentiments of these protesters,” says Guido Rossi Monti, an Italian wine consultant and educator in Florence. “The prevalence of large-scale, inexpensive sparkling wine trends is undeniably creating a deceptive landscape for consumers — and causing substantial harm to numerous producers.” There’s an ongoing shift in pricing dynamics, and France is now finding itself at a disadvantage with diminished market share.

As if getting undercut by neighboring competitors wasn’t enough, France is facing down consumer beverage preferences that are rapidly changing. “[There’s] a curiosity and enthusiasm for exploring novel and unexpected offerings,” Rossi Monti says. The country has historically been viewed as the leader in the wine world. However — besides serving as a hotspot for the “natural wine” movement — “novel” and “unexpected” are concepts in short supply when examining France’s overall repertoire.

“The wine business, as a whole, has rested on [France’s] laurels. With so much growth over the past decades, there wasn’t much incentive to change what they were doing. Now it’s necessary.”

France’s historical and legally enforced deference to tradition is a hallmark of its extraordinary culture — an attribute that has undoubtedly served it well in many ways — but a globalized wine market, with its vast array of inexpensive competition and enticing new trends, is knocking out several of the pillars supporting France’s cultural and economic pedestal.

In what feels like a coup de grâce to the collective French ego in this gloomy environment, the government recently announced a $215 million aid package destined for vintners. The ask? Destroy wine and pull up vines.

Decreasing the current glut of wine in the marketplace should help to buoy prices for grape growers, but it’s still a cultural gut punch. On the hallowed banks of the Gironde alone, 23,500 acres of storied Bordeaux vineyards are on the chopping block, and there’s a dawning realization that the top of the wine mountain is now getting somewhat crowded.

French Wine Students Finding Inspiration Abroad

In light of this new state of affairs, French students are now frequently hitting the road to learn from wine cultures other than their own. “It’s important to open the minds of young people to other wine-producing worlds. They are the best ambassadors when they return to France,” says Véronique Pellerin, a Lisbon-based food and wine marketing and communications specialist with roots in Bordeaux. As a professional with one foot on the Iberian Peninsula and the other in France, she has an enviably clear view of the shifting sands.

“The wine business, as a whole, has rested on its laurels,” she says. “With so much growth over the past decades, there wasn’t much incentive to change what they were doing. Now it’s necessary.”

Crisis often presents opportunity, and in collaboration with the Magnum Institute, a wine and spirits business school in France, Pellerin helped launch a new intensive program bringing French wine students to Portugal — broadening their education and diversifying their skills.

“People who want to learn about the world of wine no longer talk only about France but also about other countries, considering them equals — or even better.”

It’s an inevitable adaptation to keep pace in a globalized wine market. And though the idea of French students traveling to neighbors and overseas competitors to learn about wine feels shocking in the context of a bygone era, it now seems a clever step in the right direction. After all, how can France hold on to its share of the world market without fully understanding where it fits into an undeniably altered landscape?

“The next five to 10 years will see a major shift in the wine customer base as baby boomers age,” Pellerin says. “The opportunity is there for progressive-minded wine companies to shift their thinking and adjust their strategies.”

Victor Fayet, a current student in the Magnum Institute program working in the wine retail sector, describes the quandary as “a fatigue for French wines and ubiquitous appellations.” And this phenomenon isn’t just limited to France’s export markets, he explains. It’s happening at home, and French retailers are necessarily responding. “Many wine merchants who previously didn’t have foreign wines now have several dozen references,” Fayet says. “The inventory of foreign wines at their place has tripled or even quadrupled.”

“The trend is changing, [and] a new clientele is emerging,” he adds. “People who want to learn about the world of wine no longer talk only about France but also about other countries, considering them equals — or even better.” As a result, Fayet and his fellow students are venturing abroad to regain some kind of competitive advantage via a diversified education — and to help France as a whole regroup and reinvigorate. Endowed with this sort of pragmatic and open-minded attitude among the country’s youth, the French wine industry has a golden opportunity to reevaluate and correct course in these unfamiliar seas.

French Wine in the Era of Global Choice

The wine world is a complex, moving, and forever transforming mashup of tradition, fashion, image, and innovation. During my years in New York in the 2000s, I witnessed firsthand the meteoric rise of Spanish wine other than Rioja — and the full recognition of lesser-known regional Italian wine’s international street cred. Varieties like Falanghina, Mencía, Godello, and Lagrein became commonplace on restaurant lists and in bottle shops across the city. Croatian, Slovenian, and Greek wines also began to carve out a niche. All this was against the backdrop of beasts like California and Australia already ruling their fiefdoms.

Still, French wine stood tall above all else, seemingly impervious to the multi-pronged assault, proud and steadfast.

The years since have seen dozens more contenders, new and old, entering or reentering the ring. China is now making minor inroads. Georgia is back in fighting form. English bubbly is convincingly asserting its case. Portugal is a waking giant after centuries of slumber. It’s been too much to bear for France — too many enticing options for a consumer base growing more adventurous and exploratory by the month — and the chinks in its armor have grown critically vulnerable.

France’s winemaking industry and up-and-coming wine students can no longer simply lean on their Gallic traditions and varieties for guaranteed success — and hijacking shipments of Cava, while attention-grabbing, isn’t going to remedy the increasing malaise. International education and perspective are now prerequisites to compete, and adaptation to a changing climate is a must.

Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the like will remain great icons. They’re not falling off the map — not by a long shot — and they’ll always be major players and cultural touchstones. But in this new global wine reality, France will have to fight — and fight smart — to keep the outsized share of spoils it has long enjoyed. For the first time in the past century, simply “being French” on its own just isn’t enough.

The article France No Longer Defines Global Wine Culture. Can It Adapt? appeared first on VinePair.

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