It was no surprise. The country whose motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité wanted out of its shackles. Too many rules and regulations, no wiggle room, not enough space for creativity. Winemakers in France had had enough. They had been dreaming of possibilities that they couldn’t realise. They requested carte blanche. And they got it. They got it in the form of VDF. Vin de France. They nickname it the Freedom Appellation.
France is one of the five most important wine producing countries in the world. Along with Spain, China, Italy and Turkey it holds 50% of the world’s total vineyard area (including vineyards for the production of juice, table grapes, raisins as well as wine). France’s share is 11%, Spain’s 13%, China’s 11%, Italy’s 9% and Turkey’s 6% (OIV, April 2017).
As far as wine is concerned, France produced last year 43.5 million hectolitres which is less than Italy (50.9 mio hl) but more than Spain (39.3 mio hl), the USA (23.9 mio hl) and Australia (13 mio hl). France does well on the export side. In 2016 together with Spain and Italy its wines accounted for 55% of the world market in terms of volume. By value France is the leader, with 28% of market share worth 8’255 mio Euros. It is followed by Italy with 19% of market share worth 5’354 mio Euros (OIV, April 2017).
If this all looks rosy for France, the country’s 2016 wine production nevertheless dropped by 7% from 2015, and the latter year’s production was lower than that of 2014 (OIV, April 2017). The outlook for the 2017 harvest has taken a turn for the worst with the terrible frosts that have swept across the country this spring severely damaging parts of Chablis, Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux and that will result in lower crops this autumn. Global consumption of wine has been diminishing since 2008. In France, according to Valérie Pajotin, managing director of Anivin, the young have lost interest in wine and need something fresh and new to make them fall in love with it again.
Consumers today have a fabulous choice of wine from all corners of the globe. France rules supreme in the fine wine category but cheap, entry level wine has not been its forte. That has been the New World’s hunting ground. To take Chile and Australia as examples, both countries have shown how good and enjoyable cheap wine can be. France, on the other hand, has been reproached for its inability to offer reliable quality in its cheaper wines. Such inconsistencies have been making international consumers turn away from France and look towards other countries. In France itself, were it not for the lack of choice of vins du monde or non-French wines in French supermarkets and wine shops, sales of non-premium indigenous wine might be having a much rougher time.
Selling French wine has its challenges. One of the main reasons is the labelling and appellation system. A lot of consumers think that the labels are too complicated. How can they understand what they are buying when the bottle does not display the grape variety?
As explained by Laurent Delaunay, president and winemaker at Badet Clément & Co and in charge of marketing at Anivin, “the French approach to making wine is terroir driven”. Wine is a produce, an expression of the characteristics of a specific locality, of terroir. This is reflected in the classification system, i.e. the Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) and Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP). Along with qualitatively designating the terroir of origin, the classification system also regulates the way vines are cultivated and wine is produced. These regulations were initially put in place to ensure quality but they often cannot guarantee it and what’s more, can be restrictive for a winemaker and prevent creativity. This is where Vin de France, the “freedom denomination” comes into play.
Created in 2009 as a rebranding of Vin de Table, the new appellation addresses the shortcomings mentioned above linked to the AOP and IGP appellations of origin. The first big innovation is that the grape variety can be stated on the label. Anivin, the promotional body for Vin de France, brands the appellation “the national French denomination dedicated to grape varietal wines”. This change is a huge step forward for the French wine industry. It can now produce varietally branded wines and compete in that category on the world stage.
Vin de France, which can also state the vintage on the label – unlike the Vin de Table category – encompasses both single varietals and blends. Blends is where producers can really get creative. VDF wines can be made by blending grapes from different wine regions, from opposing parts of France, from fresh regions with warm ones. Wine designers can put together, for example, Gros Manseng from Gascogny with Vermentino from Provence. They can mix local and international grape varieties; create wines that have not existed before. This not only enables them to be imaginative with the taste profile of their wines but it also allows them to work with the diversity of climate and it gives them the tools to produce consistent quality wines, wines that will retain a similar identity vintage after vintage. This consistency is key in creating strong brands.
Laurent Delaunay: “If you want a brand approach, your wine must not vary too much from year to year and that is what blends help us achieve. French market share has declined. Twenty, twenty-five years ago we didn’t take a brand approach and didn’t listen to the consumer. Now we have Vin de France and it is consumer led. Wines are made according to what consumers want”.
Since its creation in 2009, VDF has been growing in strength. It has doubled its production to 185 mio bottles between 2010 and 2016, and is doing particularly well on the export market, where 70% of its output is directed. Sales to many markets are increasing. Sales to Sweden have risen by 16% from 2015 to 2016. The major part of VDF production is high volume wine with much of it being well made and representing good value for money. The category attracts the likes of big producers such as Castel, François Lurton but also small vignerons, natural wine producers and winemakers who for a variety of reasons either purposefully opt out of an AOP or IGP, or whose creativity is at odds with their appellations of origin. The category ranges from entry level to luxury brands.
“Vin de France is the way to get into wine. It makes things simple for the consumer and offers value for money. Varietals and brands are easy to recognize and understand” says Valérie Pajotin. “With Vin de France we hope to get the young men and women of our country interested in wine again and of course we would like them to become initiated through French wine rather than through New World or non-French wine. We next wish for them to progress on to more complex and subtle wines, to wines of origin, IGP and AOP wines from France and connect with their land’s rich cultural heritage”. Undoubtedly France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, would hope for the same. “Le vin, c’est l’âme de la France”, he said in an interview to Terre de Vins (8.5.2017).
I’ll drink to that and to the wine-loving new President of France.