UK sales of French vins de pays are suffering because consumers do not understand the category - even though quality is improving, according to retailers and wine experts.
Vins de pays sales - which make up 38.6 per cent of France's wine sales by volume - dropped 5 per cent by volume and 6 per cent by value in the year to March 2007, according to Nielsen. Total French wine sales grew 2 per cent by volume and 5 per cent by value.
Wine merchants say France's country wine category - which aimed to offer a simple and flexible alternative to the complex appellation system - has become mired in regionality as tiny and unknown VdP regions corner the quality market and leave bulk production to better-known areas such as Vins de Pays d'Oc.
"I think the category has stood still over the past couple of years," said Tanners director Robert Boutflower. "France has caused this by becoming more and more region-focused, with small 'niche' appelations erupting from bigger catch-all appellations.
"The Coteaux du Languedoc is a prime example of this, eclipsing anything interesting being done as Pays d'Oc, as the likes of La Clape and Pic-St-Loup turn out the quality. Meanwhile, places like Fitou, Limoux and Minervois seem to be raising their game. What's left for vins de pays?"
Best of the bunch
There are some gems to be discovered in the category and the results of the Top 100 Vins de Pays 2007 competition appear on page 20.
This year's entries - up to 1,115 from 1,053 in 2006 - were dominated by Vins de Pays d'Oc, followed by Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne and Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes.
Sauvignon Gris, Braucol and Aléatico are among the more unusual grape varieties honoured in the competition, which was judged by a panel of 19 wine experts, including Oz Clarke, Sam Harrop MW and Rosemary George MW and chaired by Tim Atkin MW.
OLN's Top 100 Vins de Pays supplement will be published with our May 18 issue.