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Appellation Out Of Controlée

French wine producers, facing desperate times, are beefing up their packaging

Give it long enough and most things pass their sell-by date. Brand icons are invariably bound by the trends they dictate or define. Consumer attention span is short. Tastes change, loyalties evaporate, life moves on.

Whither then, French wine? Once the nonpareil in knowledgeable boozing, it’s been elbowed from the bar by a performing troupe of fearless New World parvenus. Exposed as a victim of its own complacency and, let’s face it snobbishness, le vin rouge ou blanc is now aimlessly adrift in an overflowing wine lake democratised by the likes of Barramundi and Jacob’s Creek.

Exports are down by 7% this year, and it seems even the locals have to be bullied into uncorking the homegrown. Whereas in the ‘sixties your average Jean-Paul was good for at least a couple of litres a week, he’d be counted as doing well to be knocking back half that amount nowadays. To rub salt in the wound, this year’s French grape harvest is set to be 20% up on last year.

Short of giving the stuff away, a less draconian marketing solution is being sought – with Gallic pride the first thing that must be swallowed. Learning from its younger, brasher competition, the French wine industry is now taking a long, hard look at the way in which those bottles of New World cab sauv and chardonnay are presented.

Revamped labelling is high on the agenda. However, don’t expect UV varnished can-can girls or even the Eiffel Tower in full colour. Far more likely will be an enhanced focus on the grape variety and a downplaying of the AOC designation given to whichever obscure vineyard produced the wine.

Despite this long overdue nod in the direction of packaging as a primary sales tool, chances are that this is a rescue remedy straight out of the “too little too late” drawer. Simply slapping the name Merlot on the bottle’s front isn’t likely to cause any sleepless nights in Chile.

Ironically, it was the sheer exuberance of those early label designs that helped establish the New World alternative in the first place. Rather than reducing the would-be imbiber to rummaging around in some dimly remembered O Level textbook as proof of eligibility to purchase, they instead exuded a refreshingly classless, translatable bonhomie.

Good wine is good wine, wherever it originates. Good packaging, however, is whatever best introduces, secures and reflects its contents in the most positive guise; not a grudging after-thought to prop up an ailing brand or a badly bruised ego.