Ah, the humiliation of it all: Statistics recently released by the European Union (referenced in this USDA report on the European wine market) show that the United States has passed France in exports of wine to Great Britain. The British market is critical to the French wine industry. It was thirsty Brits on the hunt for something to drink who invented the modern international wine market, and since the 12th-century marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II, England has been France’s biggest customer.

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Canterbury Cathedral

Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Canterbury Cathedral

England still is France’s biggest customer, but France is no longer England’s biggest supplier. A few years ago, Australia outsold France, supplying what some French condescendingly dismissed as vulgar fruit bombs to a new generation of English wine drinkers. Vulgar or not, the Australian invasion of England caused enormous pain for French farmers. The market for vin de table (the French legal designation for inexpensive, mass produced wine—at least until the new, improved, EU-approved “Vin de France” kicks in) collapsed, inspiring tractor-driving French farmers to block traffic in protest. The French government propped up prices, buying surplus wine and either storing it or distilling it down to alcohol to power, among other things, the tractors of French farmers.

In 2006, the European Union demanded that France stop paying its farmers to produce bad wine no one likes, because that’s apparently Bulgaria’s job. At exactly the moment when France was being forced to cut subsidies, American wine came on strong. That same year, a consortium of wineries—including Gallo—underwrote a “wine on the rocks” advertising campaign that appalled purists but boosted the consumption of rosé wines by more than 50%. Rosé is a category that includes White Zinfandel.

The Brits are nuts about white Zin, especially the younger generation. Sales of pink wines are up more than 100% in the last three years, and more than half of the rosé sold in England is White Zin. Gallo now reportedly the top seller across Great Britain.

The French reaction to the looming crisis is fascinating. Being French, they’re not so much focused on solving the problem as they are dedicated to arguing, mostly with one other. The 21 regional bodies that govern French winemaking need to pool their money to fund some advertising and promotion, but aren’t able to agree on what needs to be done. The result is that France, unlike its competitors, has no coordinated marketing effort in England. While Americans leverage the soft-focus imagery of the sexy Napa Valley and Australia invites uptight Brits to relax and throw another shrimp on the barbie, the French haggle over whether Burgundy or Bordeaux is more French.

Which has led to an uprising among British wine sellers whose profits depend on high-margin, inexpensive French wines. This summer, a group of 25 leading UK retailers and importers drafted a letter to French agriculture & fisheries minister Michel Barnier, imploring: “We are united in the belief that France needs to change the way it promotes it wine in the UK if it is to ever regain—or even stabilize—its market share.”

France is, of course, a nation resistant to change. French winemaking, in particular, is slavishly devoted to maintaining tradition. A chunk of the French wine industry is likely to ride that dedication proudly into bankruptcy, in large measure because the nation that makes the world’s greatest wines isn’t able to compete with White Zinfandel.

Imagine that.

— Tom Johnson is a writer and consultant who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is working on a book about the marvelous and sometimes ridiculous ways wine has changed history. His blog is http://LouisvilleJuice.com.

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12 Responses

  1. GW

    Why would that be embarrassing to the French? British people with taste will continue to consume French wine, and those who are after cheap alcoholic beverages regardless of taste will buy wines from elsewhere (even Bulgaria). It would be embarrassing if the average American (or Australian, or whatever) wine were of better quality, but that stage hasn’t been reached yet. Let’s talk about it being embarrassing if that point is ever reached.

  2. Wally

    The Brits are buying white zin precisely because they like the taste. Fruity, sweet, easy to drink with moderate alcohol levels. Riesling is enjoying a resurgence in the US for the same reasons. Personally, I don’t care for that style of wine but as a retailer I need to supply what people want as well as educate and introduce them to new styles and regions. Would-be arbiters of “taste” have been around a long time but generally the public ignores them and votes with their $, £ and €. The mass market is not going to determine the fate of DRC Ch. Margaux but if a guy producing bulk wine in the Midi wants to stay in business he’d better make what people want to drink.

  3. Ashlynkat

    It seems that more and more I find myself scratching my head at the wine buying trends of the UK market. They have truly lost their way and really shouldn’t have as much pull over the entire wine industry as they do.

  4. sam klingberg

    @gw it’s embarrassing because their industry is getting beat by the wines french always sneer at. like @wally said, the established chateau and burgundian vigneron will be fine, but the bulk of the french industry is built off of the cheaper everyday booze. when that market is split up between the us and australia, it makes it a lot harder for the top to survive.

  5. Keith Miller

    Consumers love sweet. Oh it increases businesses bank accounts…YEAH they say when the realize that part…

    Keith Miller