Enter wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt, who runs the small Domaine de l' A winery and sells winemaking advice to 50 French clients and 20 others around the world. He may be disparagingly known as a “flying winemaker,” but he has a unique grasp of both what vintners are doing and what they're up against, particularly if they want to go toe-to-toe with the rest of the world.
"There is nothing to do," says Derenoncourt when asked how France can compete with new-world wines that tend to be sweeter, oakier and cheaper than typical French wines.
"France used what could be called a 'terroir philosophy,' where the appellations historically made the brand. Now, putting 'Bordeaux' on the label doesn't cut it anymore," he says. "Brands are supported by marketing and other countries spend a lot more on it. Here, with government restrictions on advertising, you can't concentrate on it much and, abroad, we're useless. We were passed."
Hidden in his bleak outlook for French wine brands, however, is what many consider to be the solution.
"As much as possible, I try to push for stuff that's unique," he says. His response could ring untrue, as globetrotting wine consultants like him are often accused of homogenizing wines, but he bristles at the idea.
"I think I succeeded because I didn't do that," he counters, adding that he often brings his producers together to taste each other’s work. "Merlot is different in different soils. I want that difference."
In the Jura mountains, small production winemaker Stéphane Tissot grasped this “unique” concept and made his reputation following through on the idea. "We used to think we were the kings of the world, but now you can make excellent wine everywhere," he says.
Luckily, he saw the terroir light. Not so long ago, Tissot’s winery was buying yeasts (which turns the sugar in grape juice into the alcohol in wine) from faraway locales to make their wines, instead of using those that were naturally occurring in the Jura—a peculiar irony considering the nearby town of Arbois is the former home of Louis Pasteur.
"You get to the point where you realize that something's off," he says. With this straightened out, unique regional flavors can shine through. His sweet Spirale, for example, smells of crushed fall leaves and tastes like a sort of religious fruit juice. In addition, regional chardonnays can have unique spicy and even smoky flavors.
With a “best-foot-forward approach” that slowly paid off, Tissot began wooing North American clients 12 years ago with his chardonnay and fizzy white crémant.
"You sell the tipicity of the Jura and then bring in other products," he says, explaining how a Canadian sommelier fell in love with his chardonnay and how many doors swung open from there. "The most accessible stuff gives people the desire to find more."
By selling the best of the brand, something he sees as good advice for all French winemakers, he's finding a way through a rough patch in the American market and creating a good blueprint for expanding into emerging markets.
"As soon as we get away from what everybody else is doing," he says, "the better off we are."
Back in Paris, Olivier Poussier, the best sommelier in the world in 2000 and wine buyer for the distinguished Lenôtre chain, agrees.
"Mediocre wines no longer have a place," says Poussier, who flutters between a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of wines and an artistic appreciation and presentation of their qualities.