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Efforts intensify to stem crisis as France faces bumper crop

The bumper grape harvest forecast for 2004 looks set to intensify the crisis afflicting the French wine industry.

France’s agriculture ministry released figures this week predicting a harvest 19% larger than 2003 and 2% up on the average of the past 5 years.

Faced with mounting stocks of unsold wine, several regions have introduced measures to limit production. In June, Bordeaux’s trade body the CIVB decided to cap sales of this year’s crop by 25-30%.

Its sister body in Beaujolais recently agreed to restrict AOC approval to producers who have contracts to sell their wine. Production quotas have also been fixed in Champagne.

After meeting wine profession representatives on Wednesday, agriculture minister Hervé Gaymard announced measures designed to help France’s struggling wine exports.

From 2006, Bordeaux and Burgundy – regions currently producing almost exclusively AOC wine – will be allowed to make Vins de Pays, mentioning grape variety on the label. This is considered essential if France is to win back its declining share of key export markets where consumption habits are influenced by New World labelling. Other ‘flexible’ winemaking techniques banned in France, such as putting oak chips in wine and irrigation, are being studied.

The Minister also announced a doubling of public spending (from €10m to €20m) on promoting French wine. This is still less than the annual advertising budget of New World giant Gallo.

Reactions have been mixed. Burgundy’s producers have rejected the idea of a Vin de Pays, saying that they want to remain ‘100% AOC’. Christian Delpeuch, President of the CIVB, told decanter.com he welcomed this proposal. But he described the extra public funding for promotion as ‘totally inadequate’.

With the exception of Champagne and top crus, most French wine regions are struggling. In the first quarter of 2004, wine exports fell 7% in value compared to the same period in 2003.

A White Paper focusing on wine advertising and public health is due to be presented to the French Prime Minister on 28 July. It is likely to recommend legislation on the lines of the Spanish law declaring wine to be a product of ‘nutritional value’.

Written by Rupert Joy

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