ViniSud, a showcase of the up-and-coming wines from the Languedoc region of France, begins in Montpellier today, occurring in a region that epitomises the current problems affecting the industry.
Just last week vintners marched through this southern region of France, in Narbonne, Beziers, Nimes and Avignon to publicise this annual crisis, demanding more aid to help them get rid of their unsold stocks.
Overproduction, shrinking exports, advertising restrictions, an aggressive anti-alcohol abuse campaign, and changing domestic drinking habits, have left French wine makers with a huge glut on their hands.
In 2004, domestic wine consumption continued to decline, exports dropped 6.2 per cent in volume, as France continues to lose market share to New World wines. Globally, consumers are drinking less wine, prepared at the same time to pay more for a better quality drink.
Languedoc is in part responsible for France's "wine lake". It's a region that was mainly known for producing a big part of its lower quality table wine. Now it is becoming renown for producing some of the finer new wines coming on the market as those who see the future and can invest shift toward quality.
Those on the bottom end of the scale are facing a dismal future. Local unions estimate some vintners are losing more than €2,000 per hectare of vines thanks to crumbling prices, according to sister publication BeverageDaily.com. The problems have led to a series of attacks by militant vintner group CRAV on foreign wine installations across Languedoc Roussillon.
Meanwhile ViniSud, described as the largest gathering for Mediterranean wine, features about 1,500 exhibitors attempting to push quality to a wider world.
While the major buyers mainly come to ViniSud to discover the latest that the Languedoc region has to offer, some of the producers from the lesser known Mediterranean countries see it as their opportunity to gain a foothold in what has become a cut throat global market and a move toward quality.
In addition to the major wine regions in Italy, Spain and Portugal, buyers can also take some tasting trips to sections of the exhibition featuring Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria; Greece, Israël, Lebanon, Cyprus, Malta, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Macedonia.
About 32,500 visitors usually turn up to the three-day exhibition, which takes place every two years. John Salvi, a professional taster and international judge, says ViniSud has transformed itself into one of the more important gatherings in France for professional wine buyers.
Buyers are expected from some of Europe's biggest retailers, including Sainsbury's, Asda and Marks & Spencer.
"The show is attracting the big buyers who come over to try and find the exciting new wines emerging in the Languedoc," Salvi told FoodProductionDaily.com.
He added that he hoped that the more militant attitude here in the south didn't result in a renewed push by some to kick foreign wines makers out of the show and make it a purely domestic affair. Such a call was made by some prominent political figures in 2004, at the previous holding of ViniSud.
"This has become an important event for the Spanish and the Portuguese," Salvi said. "The Italians could come to like it. That interest is what makes it the important showcase for Mediterranean wines."
France ranks first in the world with production of 58.8 million hectoliters in 2004 and with a 2005 vintage currently estimated to be 54.7 million hectoliters, according to a report on the country's wine sector by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The 2005 figure represents a decrease of 6.8 per cent compared to 2004, but a gain of 6.3 per cent compared to the average during crop years 2000-2004.
The three largest French wine producing regions-- Languedoc-Roussillon, Aquitaine, and Provence/Alpes/Cote d'Azur -- accounted for 62 per cent of total French wine production in 2004.
As a consumer, however, France continued its long-term decline in domestic consumption last year. Based on a recent study conducted by a French consumer-polling panel, this trend is expected to continue in the future. Total bottled wine sales in hyper/supermarkets dropped by three per cent in 2004, compared to 2003, the USDA reported.
Volumes purchased by the food service sector decreased five per cent in both value and volume in 2004, compared to 2003, although the average for prices remained stagnant.
Twenty four percent of French wine production is exported within the EU, to the UK, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Exports outside the EU are primarily to the US, Japan, Canada, and Switzerland.
French wine exports in 2004 dropped 6.2 per cent in volume compared to 2003 to about 14.2 MHL or €5.6bn in value. For the period January-October
2005, French wine exports decreased three per cent in volume and two per cent in value to €4.4bn.
Meanwhile total wine imports in 2004 increased 12 per cent in volume to reach 5.5 MHL valued at €482bn.
Growth in world trade, compounded with the EU's expansion to Central and Eastern European countries, has intensified competition for exporters to the EU and among European producers themselves, the USDA stated.
The French government has responded by urging growers to address consumer demands as a means of competing more effectively with emerging third-country competitors and gaining share in new markets.
The French also will rip up around 16,000 hectares of vines, around two per cent of the total, this year as part of efforts to restructure the sector. Vineyards comprise 17 per cent of all harvested agricultural areas in France, compared to 15.8 percent in Spain and 11.9 percent in Italy.
The European Commission is expected to unveil proposals for a full-scale reform of the common wine market later this year.
According to a forecast study by UK consultancy IWSR, France will remain the leading exporter of still light wine, but its exports will decrease by 3.62 per cent by 2008. Italy will experience a 37.6 per cent loss of exports during the same period as wine from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Portugal become more appealing to consumers according to the IWSR forecast.
Meanwhile, world wine retail sales are expected to increase by 62.5 per cent over the next decade, with retail revenues from wine sales forecast to rise by 23.5 per cent. Most of the growth will occur for wine selling at more than €5 per bottle and this will represent a quarter of consumption in 2008, IWSR said.
Overall, consumers drank about 30bn 75cl bottles in 2004 and will drink about 31.66bn in 2008, with the growth occurring in the Italian, US, UK, Scandinavian and Russian markets. France has gone the other way and is expected to lose its place as the top wine consumer in the world, falling to third place by 2008 as the US takes the number one spot.
Italy will maintain the second largest market by volume. In terms of retail value the US will continue to be the world's top market in 2008, followed by the UK and France. The UK was the fifth largest wine market by value in 1999 while France was in second place. Scandinavia and Russia will overtake Spain in terms of retail value during the same period.
Overall retail sales of imported still light wines will increase by 62.5 per cent over the next ten years, IWSR forecast. US and UK consumers are expected to increase their yearly per capita consumption of wine. In the US, consumption is forecast to rise to 13.1 litres per person by 2008 from 10.9 litres in 2003, a 20.1 per cent increase. Per capita consumption in the UK is forecast to rise to 28 litres per person by 2008 from 24.8 litres in 2003, a gain of 12.9 per cent.
In 2004 global wine and spirits sales reached $267.3bn (€2.2bn).