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Fine French wines going for a song

Supermarket wine buyers are taking advantage of top French wines sold at bargain prices across France.

Supermarkets are cannily picking up the wines that have been left behind by a weak export market.

Last week, near the French city of Strasbourg, hundreds packed into the suburban supermarket Auchan for its annual Foire aux Vins (wine fair), where top chateaux such as Margaux, Mouton Rothschild, Sociando Mallet and Cos d’Estournel were going for a song.

Chateau Sociando Mallet 2003 was priced at €25 a bottle, Cos d’Estournel 2002 at €49, Léoville Las Cases 2001 at €61 and both Margaux and Mouton Rothschild 2002 at €95.

In the vast Carrefour hypermarket in Paris, Mouton and Margaux were going even cheaper, for €86.11.

High end wine sales have noticeably increased, said Auchan manager Jean-Marc Dusautoir. ‘By this time six years ago, we had sold about €500,000 of grand cru, but we are close to €1m so far this year.’

Weak export markets for vintages like 2002 and 2001 are a factor, according to Philippe Casteja, president of the Council of Grands Crus, and of Borie-Manoux, one of the largest French wine companies.

‘But that is not the only reason,’ he added. ‘The supermarkets have done a great job buying this year, including from the small 2003 vintage, in response to French consumers tired of seeing grand crus sold only abroad.’

Previous vintages of such high-end wines cost more in France than they did outside of the country. In Washington DC for example, a Chateau Angelus 1998 was on sale for US$63 in early 2002 at Calvert Woodley and Chateau Palmer 1998 cost US$80.

At about the same time in France, the going rate for the Angelus of the same vintage was €150 at the Nicolas wine store, while the Palmer 1998 cost €100 at Auchan.

Also, top chateaux have in the past tended to avoid supermarkets for fear of poor storage or lighting, but recently stores like Auchan have made improvements.

‘About 10 years ago, they were not serious [about wine storage],’ said May Eliane de Lencquesaing at Chateau Pichon Longueville in Pauillac. ‘But they have evolved, and the market has evolved, and now we get on well with them,’ she said.

Even foreign buyers drove several hours to buy their wine at Auchan’s opening gala – in such numbers that both Cos d’Estournel and Sociando Mallet ran out.

‘Why buy futures and then have to wait two years for a delivery?’ said Klaus Diehl of Germany, who came to France with a friend to buy about 20 cases.

But one supermarket employee cautioned that the bonanza would only last as long as the export market was depressed. ‘Enjoy it while it lasts. It won’t always be like this. In weak years we make up for what the the export market did not take.’

NB €1.00 (Euro) = US$1.23 (USD)

Written by Panos Kakaviatos

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