Cheap and Chic
and Hospitality, October 2005
The finest Champagnes, Bordeaux and burgundies get a lot of attention,
but they - and the strong Euro - have contributed to the notion
that good French wines are expensive. This, along with shifting
consumer tastes have got the French wine industry scrambling to
deliver better value products and to tweak their marketing campaigns.
But don't wait until the French make fruitier wines with labels
easier to understand: there are plenty of mid- and even low-priced
good quality wines. It's just that they've been nudged aside by
the onslaught of New World wines from Australia, California, Chile
and other regions. Europe, of course, is Old World.
Definition time: according to British wine guru Jancis Robinson's
encyclopedia, New World wines are "much more likely to be varietal
in both in how they are described on the label and in how they
taste," and they "tend to be immediately appealing on release,
whereas some Old World wines may be positively offputting to taste
for their first year or two in bottle." These days, the New World
is the place to be for many wine drinkers.
Australia has overtaken France in sales in two very important
markets: The U.S. and the U.K. Here in Canada, France is holding
its own in Quebec - sales at the SAQ were a robust $550 million
over the last year, or 41.5% of the market - but it's trending
downwards everywhere else. In Ontario, Australia this year bumped
France out of the number one spot for imported wines, with $210
million in sales versus $199 million, and Italy is poised to take
over the number two spot. Things get worse for France in the west,
and, by the time you get to B.C., France ranks fourth - Australia
sells three times as much wine as France, and the U.S. twice as
While many traditional Old World French wines are excellent,
producers are aware of shifting tastes. "The new consumer is looking
for simpler, more fruity wines," said Daniel Gallisseres of the
French Economic Development office in Toronto. "We need to react
to this new environment, and many French producers have responded
by simplifying both production styles and labelling."
Chris Saxton is sommelier at Far Niente on Bay Street in Toronto.
It's part of the SIR Corp. Group, which owns restaurant chains
Jack Astor's, Alice Fazooli's, and Canyon Creek Chophouse. "Diners
have moved on from the French entry level wines that aren't that
interesting," said Saxton, "The Australians came in with bold
wines at a low price point, and they've been very good at bringing
the consumer along to higher priced wines."
Saxton recently visited wineries in the Languedoc and was impressed
with the wines in France's most freewheeling region. Jancis Robinson
says Languedoc's "better-quality wines provide some of the world's
best wine value." The vin de pays wines have far fewer restrictions
on how wines are made and with what grape: "The winemakers," said
Saxton, "are really responding to the market - 'you want oak in
your chardonnay? Floral? Acidity?' and they'll blend a style the
international buyers want. I also tasted some superb Appellation
While Saxton's restaurant is aimed at a higher end business crowd,
SIR Corp's chains sell wines at a lower price point. "Jack Astor's
reprints their menu maybe twice a year, so the wines have to be
popular. In many ways, the packaging is as important as the wine.
The Australians have learned the value of humorous labels - especially
with animals on them - and now the French are catching up. French
Rabbit is a great example, it's very drinkable and it's twelve
bucks a litre."
Speaking of French Rabbit, it's a hop-away success at the LCBO.
The all-important cute-animal-on-label is taken a step further
- several varietally-labelled wines are sold in one litre "tetrapacks",
sort of like juice boxes for grown-ups. "French Rabbit has done
extremely well," said LCBO spokesperson Daniele Gauvin, "Sales
in the first 17 days hit our annual projections. People love that
Daniel Gallissaires at the French Economic Development office
concurred: "Ontario was the test market and it has done very well.
The plan now is to roll it out to other provinces and the rest
of North America." He added that marketing budgets for western
Canada are being increased.
This success highlights a real problem for French producers:
their labelling. Typically, French consumers are not very concerned
about grape varietals and French producers are fond of blending
several grapes - so not only is there no tradition of identifying
the grape on the label, it's actually against the rules in all
the Appellation Controllée regions except Alsace. Here in the
New World, any consumer sophisticated enough to specify more than
"red" or "white" is likely to choose by varietal. An increasing
number of French producers have responded by indicating that their
wines are chardonnay, merlot, or whatever. Others add a special
label on the back indicating the grape varieties for the Canadian
"Five years ago French wines had a higher profile, but a lot
of the younger customers are opting for Australian now," said
April Kilpatrick, Ontario's Sommelier of the Year, who works at
Toronto's Ki Modern Japanese restaurant on Bay Street. "People
find French whites difficult. For instance, they may have heard
the name Sancerre, but they might not know that it's sauvignon
blanc. Same with Pouilly Fumé. I'm a big fan of Chablis [a terrific
chardonnay from Burgundy], but I was surprised to find people
didn't know it. I'd have to do a hand sell, and then they'd like
Diners today are more interested in learning about wine, adds
Kilpatrick. "I now have more customers wanting to talk to me than
I can visit in an evening, and that's why an educated waiter is
really, really important." Kilpatrick recommends training staff
on slow-moving wines that you know are good: "Open a bottle and
taste it with the staff. It's the only way to impart confidence.
Then they can speak more knowledgeably to the customer."
Restaurateurs are in the difficult position of having to be both
leaders and followers when it comes to wine. You may discover
a terrific, good-value wine from an obscure region of France (or
elsewhere), but it's difficult to ignore public skepticism. "What
is marketed well and is popular is a big huge deal," said Kilpatrick.
"It influences what people want. There is a lot of choice out
there in the marketplace and it's daunting for people to try and
For many oenophiles, France remains the Mecca of wine - but even
they can be dazzled by Johnny-come-lately upstarts. April Kilpatrick
was one of the judges at the tasting held for this article and
here's what she had to say: "I taste a lot of wine and I think
I have a good idea of what's going on, but I was blown away by
the quality and value. You don't often think of France in terms
of value for dollar, and I was so impressed. The basic pinot noirs
and chardonnays were just really delicious. I will definitely
explore more for my wine list."
So two words for France: en avant!