6 Oct 2010

French wines have a problem in England

or Christmas in England, a moveable feast

French wines no longer rule, and it is going to take a serious look at what is wrong for them to regain market share in the UK

For some years I have noted, and occasionally commented, the seemingly inexorable decline of French wines in what has been, for close on a thousand years, their largest export market: the British Isles. In peaceful times between these neighbours, firm allies for the past 200 years, the current decline in market share for French wines in Great Britain seems to be unprecedented. Recent figures given for wine sales through supermarkets (which account for about 80% of the total market in the UK) have shown that not only France has long lost its number 1 slot as source of imported wine, but it has actually been relegated to 4th or 5th place. Before thinking about the causes for this situation, here are a few facts, and two exemples from recent experience.

The UK market has, until the recent economic crisis, been a booming one, and wine sales actually exceeded beer sales in value 3 years ago for the first time. Supermarkets and their like dominate the UK market, as in France. As this is the only channel to have reliably monitored sales figures, one can but provide these as an indication for what is happening in the market as a whole. The rest of the market is divided between specialist retail shops, internet merchants, and the on-trade (bars, pubs, hotels and restaurants). Sales of Australian, Californian and South African wines are ahead of those from France in supermarkets. France, in forth place and falling, is now being challenged by Italy and the only French wine brand to appear in the top 25 is JP Chenet, and its sales are falling too.

Every year or two, I spend the Christmas period in England with members of my family. Staying with my mother, who lives alone but entertains frequently, I am asked to take care of the choice of wines for our meals. She also asks me to go through her cellar and make recommendations as to which wines should be kept, and which should be drunk soon. I had done this in 2007 and so, in 2009, was able to measure the changes in her cellar contents. In 2007, more than 50% of the wines in her cellar were French. Last year I would put that proportion at around 35%. Now I would classify my mother, as well as her guests, as among the « traditional » category of English wine consumers, which means those most likely to favour French wines.

Another example of this trend is to be seen in the wine list of the « gastro-pub » that lies just 100 yards from my mother’s house in the same village in the West Country of England. This village pub, like many others, has been tranformed into more of a restaurant than a pub, although it still operates as a pub as well and has retained its proper atmosphere. As a restaurant, it provides very good and sophisticated food. I cannot think of many village cafés in France with food anywhere near this quality! The wine list contains 32 different wines, of which 8 are French, 5 Australian, 5 Italian and the rest from Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, Lebanon, California and Spain. Unusually, the most expensive wine is from New Zealand, not from France.

Why are French wines losing out in this market, as in so many others? There are several reasons. Some wines, like most Champagne and top Bordeaux, have become far too expensive for all but the super-rich. And the image of these tends to give most French wine an « expensive » aura. And then there are far too many names used on French labels. Counting all the possible designations, one comes to the absurd figure of around 1500 different names of origin for French wines and they keep creating new ones! Not only are the vast majority totally unknown to most wine drinkers, but very few of them actually say which region they come from. Added to which, the absurd rules that govern French wine rarely allow the grape variety to be placed on the label. Whether the proud « terroiristes » who so love to bury their heads in sand like it or not, this is what people around the world recognise as giving some indication of the wine’s flavours. Finally, a good dose of humility with regard to their competition might also help the French to reclaim some of their lost market share. One can but hope, but I wonder what I will find this year when I return to my country of origin.