Cheap and Chic

Foodservice 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 much.

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 Controlée wines."

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 chardonnay."

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 market.

"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 it."

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 pick something."

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!

^ top