France has earned a reputation for stubborn arrogance in the wine world for boasting of its inimitable terroirs and millennia-old viticultural traditions, while slapping lawsuits on any upstart foreign wine maker who dares to label his tipple champagne or chablis.
So when the news emerged this month that a Loire Valley producer had been smacked down by an Australian tribunal for apparently trying to pass off its sauvignon blanc as a New Zealand brand by labeling it Kiwi Cuvée, critics were quick to revel in the irony. Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper called it a "humiliating blow to Gallic pride," while the Wall Street Journal said that France had gotten a "dose of its own medicine." But the French may have been less guilty of applying double standards than of using the same kind of savvy marketing strategies that have allowed new wine-producing countries like New Zealand to give France a run for its money in recent years.
Although Kiwi Cuvée is sold legally in European supermarkets, the tribunal ruled last October that the wine maker, Lacheteau, could not market it under that name in Australia because consumers would wrongly believe it was made in New Zealand. The ruling was hailed by the New Zealand Winegrowers Association, which had brought the complaint to the board. But the indignation of the Kiwis has lessened in recent days after a New Zealand blogger highlighted the apparently little-publicized fact that the cuvée is actually made for Lacheteau by a New Zealand wine maker, Rhyan Wardman. "Kiwi label is nothing to wine about," the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times conceded last week.
Despite the twists and turns in the dispute, one thing is for certain: a minirevolution is taking place in the French wine industry. Some wine makers argue that the French have for too long clung to a romanticized notion of terroir and a convoluted labeling system, the appellation d'origine controlée (AOC), which makes it difficult for consumers to figure out that a Domaine des Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu Premiere Cru is a Burgundy wine let alone a pinot noir. "This is myopic marketing," says Jean-Claude Mas, a wine maker in the southern region of Languedoc. "And our arrogance caused us to ignore how serious the competition from the New World was."
Global sales of wines from the New World North and South America, South Africa and Oceania jumped from 3% of the market to 30% between 1990 and 2008, causing serious concern among wine makers from France and other European countries. The French are now realizing that they must swallow their pride and take a page from the New World playbook in order to attract new, young consumers with little wine-drinking experience. According to Denis Verdier, president of the Confederation of French Wine Cooperatives, this means introducing "easy-drinking" products with labels clearly stating the type of wine instead of the appellation, as well as a bit of gimmicky marketing. "I think France was sleeping on the laurels of its past success a bit," he says. "And now it's time for us to wake up."
Some French wine makers are already enjoying success under the new system. The wine maker Chamarré, whose motto is "Made in France, Enjoyed Everywhere," only produced its first batch five years ago but today exports to some 30 countries. It has done well by abandoning the notion of terroir it sources its grapes from thousands of growers across France to produce single varietal and assemblage wines with straightforward, stylish labels. Cleverly named Côtes du Rhone wines like Le Freak Shiraz-Viognier and Rhôning Stones are also showing up on supermarket shelves around the world, as are Languedoc wines like Bois-Moi ("Drink Me"), Abracadabra Blanc and Petit Bistro Syrah, which has a label depicting a romantic Van Gogh-inspired café scene.
The New World influence can also be seen in the "critter labels" on other nouveau French wines, such as Thierry Boudinaud's Fat Bastard Chardonnay, with its trademark hippo, and Domaine Font Mars' Cabernet Sauvignon, whose labels feature dinosaurs, a nod to the vineyard's fossil-rich soils. And the owner of the Lacheteau vineyard, Les Grands Chais de France, whose wines represent a fifth of the country's total exports, launched a line in 2005 with labels showing cartoon farm animals to indicate the types of meats that best complement the wines.
With new industry reforms passed last summer in Brussels allowing all European wine producers to list the grape variety and vintage on their labels the makers of low-end wines had previously only been able to call their products table wine in many countries another wave of aggressively marketed French wine is sure to come. "This is just beginning," says Verdier. "Now that the new rules have come into effect, we are definitely going to pull out all the stops."
While purists fear a dumbing down of French wine may have adverse consequences, Mas says the long-term success of the new brands still depends on quality wine-making. "This Kiwi Cuvée is a perfect expression of the sauvignon blanc grape, which is made in the Loire [valley], but with a New World attitude," says Mas. That may have been reason enough for New Zealanders to fear Lacheteau moving in on their territory the best-selling wine in Australia is currently New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
Australia may have to do without Kiwi Cuvée, but another French wine with a New World name is being quaffed there with zeal: Arrogant Frog, made by Mas at his estate, Domaine Paul Mas. It has become Australia's biggest French import, with 1 million bottles sold annually. Proof, perhaps, that sometimes it pays to have a bad reputation.