Navigating the Headwinds for French Wine Exports to the U.S. Market

vintageSue and I recently returned from a press tour to three French wine regions — Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley —  that are benefiting from the current surge in demand for French wines in the U.S. market. As I noted last week, France is back on consumer radar, especially with buyers thirsty for  Rosé and sparkling wines.

A  Lighter Shade of Pale?

I think there is smooth sailing ahead for Rosé, Blanquette, and Cremant producers from these regions at least in the short run, although Elizabeth Gabay MW argued in a rather brilliant masterclass that we attended at the Chateau de Blois that some Rosé producers are sacrificing potential quality in a quest to make their wines fashionably pale, pale pink. This practice might come back to bite them in the future depending upon how the export markets develop.

The conventional wisdom is that Rosé buyers prefer pale rather than robust pink color in their Rosé wines — the lighter the better — and so producers make the near clear wines they think will sell best, even if they aren’t necessarily the best wines they could make. It is the flip side of the over-extracted red wines that so many wineries produce. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom about pale pink holds here on the Pacific Coast of North America, where California not Provence is the reference point for Rosé, but that’s another column.

Pink and sparkling wines from France are selling really well. The makers of other wines, both red and white, face some headwinds and how they navigate around or through them will determine whether they will share the market boom.

Challenging Stereotypes in Languedoc

France is an Old World wine region and this means many things, including especially that most of its regions inherit in one way to another the practices and reputations of the past. Sometimes this is beneficial, but not always. Languedoc and Roussillon have to overcome undesirable stereotypes of their wines in many markets.

The image that Languedoc conjures up for wine drinkers of a certain age is of cheap, strong, tannic red wines meant to fill jugs and bottles at low prices. Languedoc became the cheap French wine lake initially when the railroads connected the South to the industrial and population centers further north and then again when cheap wine imports from Algeria dried up after it gained independence. Quantity not quality defined Languedoc — a reputation that still haunts it.

serresNow I am not going to say that cheap wine production has disappeared, but the momentum has decidedly shifted to better wines made with more marketable grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, and Mourverde along with standbys like Carignan.

We enjoyed a delicious AOP Malepere red from Chateau de Serres at lunch one day in Carcassonne. It is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon that displays a Languedoc stereotype myth-busting elegance. Fantastic!

Some producers we spoke with admitted that they tried to downplay their Languedoc roots in order to sidestep the reputation problem in export markets, hoping that the wines will simply speak for themselves.  They hope, too, that younger consumers who have no memory of the old days will have an open mind to trying the wines.

Cheap and Sweet? Not Interested!

The Roussillon producers we spoke with saw old reputation as less of an issue mainly because their region is not so well-known as Languedoc. Roussillon is often lumped in with Languedoc or left out altogether. They see today’s market as an opportunity to build a strong reputation from scratch.

But that doesn’t mean that stereotypes don’t exist in Roussillon. A colleague asked where we were headed one afternoon and when told we were going to Rivesaltes he turned up his nose — “Too bad! I’am not interested in cheap sweet wines.”

romaniWhen we arrived at Domaine de Besombes we met winemakers from the region and shared a delicious Catalan barbecue lunch. And we tasted their delicious stereotype-breaking dry red and white wines, too. Sue was particular fond of the wines made by Laurent Pratx of Serre Romani. The grandson of the man who founded the local cooperative, Pratx returned to Roussillon after working in the Rhone Valley committed to taking his wines in new, independent directions.

We tasted sweet wines at the end of the meal, but these were not the cheap sweet wines of our friend’s memory. They were wonderful, especially the Domaine de Besombes 1949 shown at the top of the page, which has special meaning for us — that’s our vintage, too!

We were fortunate to be invited to a rather special banquet where all the wines were sweet and from this region. I will paste the menu with pairings below. It was a memorable experience. I think my favorite combination was the sea bass with lemon, nuts, and popcorn with the 1990 Maison Cazes Rivesaltes Ambré.

Everyone Loves the Loire

Wine producers in the Loire Valley have a different problem from those in Languedoc. Everyone loves the Loire, which is why it is a hugely popular tourist destination.  The beautiful scenery, historic chateaux, rich food, and fine wines are hard to beat.

But it is not always easy to translate the tourist impression into wine export market sales because the Loire isn’t one thing when it comes to wine, it is many, and it is easy to get lost in this complexity. The Loire is Muscadet, for example, which can be a simple delicious wine and also, as we learned a wine of great character and complexity with extended lees-aging.

The Loire is dry Rosé de Loire and also sweetish Rosé d’Anjou. It is the crisp Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Cabernet Franc from Samur, and much more. Altogether the Loire comprises 50 appellations and demarcations, creating a jigsaw puzzle that can be difficult to navigate. Famous appellations stand out, less prominent ones that live in their shadows have trouble getting attention.

One of my favorite discoveries of this trip, for example, were the Sauvignon Blanc wines of Chenonceau, a fairly young appellation in Touraine. Chenoncau is more famous for the chateau of the same name than the wines. Too bad — because the wines can be spectacular. I suspect there is a lot more to discover here among the regions and producers who lack name recognition.

Will these headwinds hold French wine back from advancing in the hyper-competitive U.S. market? The competition is intense, so there are no guarantees, but we found many excellent wines and committed wine makers, too, so a broader French wine boom could be coming.

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One response

  1. As a wholesaler of wine and long time French Rose seller, we don’t see the CA influence in our market. Maybe the gallonage report says that, but certainly not the fine wine retailers nor restaurant BTG.

    Peter Fritts
    Grape Expectations
    SeaTac Wash

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