French wine: Will the 2009 vintage finally lift rotten sales?

From Champagne to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, vintners across France are breathing a collective sigh of relief. Thanks to favorable climatic conditions over the past 12 months, 2009 is expected to be an excellent vintage.

The news is raising hopes among France's beleaguered wine and spirits producers, who saw their sales drop a terrifying 25 percent in the first half of the year, as consumers cut back on the finer things in life amid the global financial crisis.

Although French wines won't be any more affordable -- if you want cheap, Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck) should suffice -- buzz about an exceptional harvest could get the world's wine snobs drinking French again.

Fabled winemaker Christian Moueix has likened this year's vintage to 1947, when a phenomenal harvest made his Saint Emilion region legendary, according to the Canwest News Service. "We are going to see some very well structured wines," Yves Amar, a wine merchant who represents some 100 boutique vintners across France, told DailyFinance. "From a tasting standpoint, these wines will be easy to drink and they will require less aging than normal. Overall, it's going to be a great vintage."

A few weather factors contributed to the optimal grape-growing season, reports the Financial Times. For starters, a severe winter killed off unwelcome bugs. Spring was rainy, helping to produce a big crop. And summer met the ideal Goldilocks criteria for grape growing -- not too hot, not too cold -- and was dry to boot, the paper says.

"The harvest has been very good in places like the Champagne region, the Rhône Valley and Provence," says Amar, owner of the Cave Vaneau wine shop in Paris' exclusive 7th arrondissement.

The good tidings come none too soon for the French wine industry. In the first half of 2009, wine and spirits exports dropped to €3.28 billion from €4.35 billion in the first half of 2008, according to the Paris-based Federation of French Exporters of Wines and Spirits, which represents the majority of France's wine and spirits importers. Adding insult to injury, Spain this year replaced France as the world's second largest exporter of wine in terms of volume behind Italy, according to Reuters. The drop was attributed to the 2008 harvest, France's worst since 1991.

In another worrisome trend for the country's proud vintners, the once wine-loving French are slowly weaning themselves off of one of the products that made their country famous. Between 1961 and 2003, wine consumption per capita slid 61.5 percent to 13 gallons a year from 33.3 gallons a year, according to government statistics.

There are a number of reasons for the decline, including tough drunk-driving laws -- the French blood alcohol content limit is 0.05 percent versus 0.08 percent in the United States -- and a change in habits. Lunches are getting shorter while office hours are getting longer.

But on the bright side, France remains the world leader in wine and spirits exports when value is concerned. And sales, while still lower than last year, seem to be picking up after the disastrous first half. The €514 million in export sales in August was just a 16.9 percent decline year over year, the Federation of French Exporters of Wines and Spirits reports.

Another reason for optimism? Word of the fine grape harvest is already creating a stir in the United States, one of the largest markets for French wine. "We heard from one of our Burgundy producers, who was really happy with the sugars and the acidity," Mark Congero, a salesperson at Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, California, told DailyFinance. "Everything was just jiving and he was very excited about what was going into the bottle."

What will ultimately matter, of course, is whether the world's oenophiles are equally excited about what comes out of that bottle.

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