Take a chance on France

14 February, 2014

With prices under pressure from duty, short harvests and an exodus of growers struggling to make money from grapes, French wine suppliers face a balancing act. On the one hand it is a struggle to maintain value for money at entry level – but on the other, many are benefiting from consumers trading up.

French wine sales grew 2% to £783 million in the UK off-trade over the past year, while volumes slumped 5% to 10.7 million 9-litre cases – pushing the average bottle price up 7% to £6.27, according to Nielsen data for the year to January 4.

“France cannot compete against Italy, Spain and parts of the New World when it comes to lowest price varietal wines. Very little, if anything, can be bought in France for under €1, while it is still commonplace in Spain and Italy,” says Alliance Wine’s France buyer Liz Donnelly.

“France needs to aim above this level to find its area of strength. It can offer interesting, well-made wines at £6.99 and above. Inevitably it takes more effort to sell at these price points, so it’s a huge challenge for retailers to get their customers to trade up and explore France.”

At Tesco, value offers have “reinvigorated” the main range, says product development manager Lucy Clements, while sales grew 20% in Oddbins, driven by the Rhône, Languedoc- Roussillon and south west France.

Oddbins buyer Ana Sapungiu says lesser- known wine regions could boost their presence on shelves with a point of difference and value for money. “French wine producers need to find ways to engage with younger consumers,” she says. “The established appellations are doing well and are trading on the back of past success, but there isn’t any significant innovation.”

Donnelly believes French producers need to work on their packaging and move away from traditional labelling styles.

“Other great European wine-producing countries such as Spain have a huge number of innovatively designed labels which give the wines shelf appeal. France needs to take this on board to tempt people to look at more than the price,” she says.

Hatch Mansfield has seen strong sales in its French portfolio, dominated by Burgundy and the Rhône – and brand manager Lynn Murray believes consumers are beginning to rediscover these regions as they look for “elegant, refined wines that complement rather than dominate”.

But she says availability and prices are becoming an issue for Burgundy.

“The lower end of the appellation – Maçon Blanc Villages level and village whites such as Meursault or Puligny, and even the lesser-known villages – is a concern as the wines become more premium for the mainstream consumer.”

Boisset communications director Nathalie Bergès-Boisset says French producers need to innovate to meet the challenge set by the short harvest. She adds: “We will see a return of brands. In the context of price increases, wine shortages and innovation, the balance between appellations and brands will be readjusted. Heritage, history and premium feeling will come from brands.”

Others see value for money coming from southern France, with Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence tipped as the next big trends.

Tim North, UK director of Les Grands Chais de France, says: “There are substantial shortages and therefore cost increases in some regions – notably Bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, the Rhône.

“But in the south there are appellations with good availability of quality wines at relatively reasonable prices. We are working with our customers to maintain Bordeaux as much as we can, but moving more of a focus to regions where we can get really good supply this year.”

But North notes that higher end wines are selling well. “While some people have left the wine market or are buying wine less often, people staying in are more engaged and more interested in wine,” he says.

Picpoul-de-Pinet is among suppliers’ and retailers’ top tips for French wine – along with Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Carignan and other lesser-known indigenous grape varieties.

Mark Pardoe MW, wine buying director for Berry Bros & Rudd, says: “Anywhere that can offer individuality and an interesting price- to-quality ratio will be worth investigating. Old vines, high altitude and interesting grape varieties offer opportunity for Roussillon.”

France is also well placed to capitalise on the trend towards wines that are naturally lower in alcohol, according to Alliance Wine’s Donnelly.

Hatch Mansfield’s Murray foresees a return to form for the Loire. And she adds: “Muscadet used to be a massive seller in the UK – why not again? It is perfect for today’s palate.” North agrees: “We are seeing a bit of a resurgence in Muscadet. It is light, fresh and aromatic – the kind of wine modern customers like.”

Meanwhile Guy Anderson Wines associate sales director Nadine McCallion is hoping the French fashion for wine cocktails could take off here, while Bottle Green is “going to be pushing the unique Muscat de Beaumes de Venise very hard this year”, according to operations and marketing director Richard Hitchcock.

He adds: “We want to instigate a revival of this multi-occasion wine, ideal as an aperitif or with dessert.”

Wines to watch at France Under One Roof

Grey is the new pink: Gris de gris rosé from Vranken Pommery

Burgundy blend: aromatic fruit and delicate oak from Calvet

Chablis alternative: Blason de Bourgogne Montagny

Vinsobres red: Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Reserve

Refreshing white: Jean-Luc Colombo’s Picpoul de Pinet

Next big thing? Beaumes de Venise Terres du Trias

Vintage 2012: White Burgundy from Patriarche

Altitude collection: Château Lorgeril’s Cabardès

French pastries: Badet Clement targets women drinkers

Lively Gascon: Florenbelle l’Excellence from Plaimont Producteurs

French Albariño: Laurent Miquel in a south of France first

Cloudy: 9% abv Nuage from Les Vignerons de Buzet

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