Poor old France. Not only is its popularity in the off-trade sliding year on year, but on-trade wine sales are also on a downward slide. Market researcher AC Nielsen reports a steady downturn in France's vinous fortunes to the tune of 7% in volume in the on-trade since 2002.
But let's put things into perspective. French wine still has a 35% share of the on-trade market (source: AC Nielsen, May 2005) - making it the leader by some distance. Australia comes in at number two - some way behind - at 17.3%, while Italy follows in third place with 16.1%.
The reasons for France's decline are multifarious, but in a nutshell, a world of good wine has grown up around it - not least in the New World, where easy-drinking wines with easy-to-understand labels are swamping our shelves. Not for us tight-lipped, tannic numbers with a complex rating system - instant gratification is now the order of the day.
Understanding Yet wine-lovers agree that France still produces the greatest wines in the world. The French respect terroir and have a profound understanding of what the regions and vineyards bring to their wines.
OK, so there's still a lot of rubbish about; and the appellation d'origine contrle system is still a minefield. But France is having its own revolution. There's now a new generation of producers travelling the vinous world, picking up the best lessons of New World winemaking and fusing them back into the traditions at home. The result is wines of startling complexity and quality which also offer accessibility and value for money.
These days, if you want a more interesting glug than the monotony of many New World brands, France is still the place to go - and don't sommeliers know it. Xavier Rousset, head sommelier at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, has just launched his new wine list. Instead of predictably adding to the line-up of big names from famous regions, he has concentrated on smaller producers from lesser-known appellations.
The new wines - 60 in all, come from obscure pockets from all over France, from Madiran to Menetou-Salon and from Collioure to Cahors. "I've gone for things that people wouldn't normally go for," says Rousset. "If guests ask for Sancerre or Chablis, then I'll gently suggest an equivalent from one of these.
"I'm not saying France is perfect - it still produces a lot of bad wine, and then there's that French ego to contend with," he laughs. "But producers can't wait for people to come to them any more. They have to go out there and sell their wine. If they don't, they'll struggle."
Sourcing wines from these lesser-known regions is much easier these days, according to Rousset, thanks to the likes of suppliers such as Yapp, Terroir and Les Caves de Pyrene - and business is booming.
At Guildford-based Les Caves de Pyrene, sales have quadrupled in the last five years. "The market really started to change about six years ago," confirms managing director Eric Narioo, who's now applying his obsessively terroir-focused buying criteria to other countries - particularly Italy - with huge success. "It's become much more receptive and this is down to a combination of things," he says. "The market got more educated - thanks to the likes of Club Gascon, which successfully brought regional French food and wine to everybody's attention; to chefs, who are much more attuned to wine these days; and finally to consumers, who are getting tired of one-dimensional New World Chardonnays which don't match their food."
And we can't forget Sopexa's involvement. The global communications agency represents many French wine regions and has a near-frantic PR and marketing schedule in the UK. The agency can be credited for upping the quota of Alsace wines on our restaurant lists and bringing Loire Cabernet Franc to our attention.
"In the traditional sector - wines that aren't trying to compete with the New World - France remains unparalleled for quality and value for money," declares restaurant wine consultant Kate Thal, who buys for pub groups to five-star hotels. "Good examples taste of what they cost, and sometimes taste quite a bit more than what they cost. There are horrible wines from France as there are from everywhere, but if you buy carefully, you'll find an amazing selection of styles, the best of which really are sensational."
Xavier Rousset's 10 great wines
- 2004 Côtes du Roussillon Blanc, Cuvée Laïs, Olivier Pithon (Les Caves de Pyrene, 01483 538820).
- 2004 Collioure Blanc Madeloc, Pierre Gaillard (Genesis, 020 7963 9060).
- 2002 Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Fenouillèdes, Soula Blanc, Gérard Gauby (Richard Walford, 01780 460451).
- 2001 Givry 1er Cru Blanc Petite Marole, François Lumpp (Georges Barbier, 020 8852 5801).
- 2003 Ajaccio, Clos du Cardinal, Comte Peraldi (Georges Barbier).
- 2003 Côtes de Provence, Cuvée Tradition, Domaine Richeaume (Yapp Brothers, 01747 860423).
- 2002 Collioure "Junquets", Domaine du Mas Blanc (Grand Cru Wines, 0871 474 0635).
- 1995 Vin de Pays des Bouches du Rhne, Domaine de Trevallon (Yapp).
- 2001 Faugères "Magnoux", Domaine Saint Antonin, Frederic Albaret (Georges Barbier).
- 2002 Coteaux du Languedoc, Domaine de Moncalmes (Les Caves de Pyrene).