EDITOR'S BLOG: Wine wars - the French are revolting

French farmers have always had their own agenda - but beating up Chinese wine students will prove counter-productive.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 29 Aug 2013

French farmers have always been a law unto themselves. Over the years we’ve watched aghast as the horny-handed sons of toil in berets from next door have burned foreign lamb on the autoroutes, tipped millions of litres of milk into the streets and lobbed liquid manure (not to mention the odd cocktail Molotov) at anyone who doesn’t quite see things from their point of view.

Farmers over the other side of the channel are as adept at taking to the barricades as they are filling in their Common Agricultural Policy subsidy forms. At the first sign of something they find distasteful emanating from Brussels it’s ‘aux armes, citoyens de la basse-cour!’.

This time it’s gone one nastier and a group of yobs from Bordeaux who had necked twelve pressions too many last Saturday afternoon has beaten up a group of Chinese students who were staying in the area and studying viniculture.

Three young men from Hostens 30 miles south of Bordeaux got into a row with the Chinese students and then pursued them to their hall of residence where one unfortunate young women was badly injured after being hit by a bottle in the face. There is resentment locally that Chinese interests have been buying up vineyards when they come onto the market.

This type of behaviour could prove highly counter-productive for the French nation. Hollande’s government is already in Chinese bad books for supporting a tariff on cheap imported solar panels. Sickening of a drinks menu of Tsingtao beer and rotgut baijiu liquor, the Chinese have grown very keen on wine in recent years and are now the fifth largest consumers in the world.

While Renaults and Citroens haven’t exactly been flying out of Shanghai showrooms, the French gladly provide almost half of Chinese wine imports. It’s not just middling Merlot or bog standard Provençal table wine that will suffice, either. With their love of bigging-it-up when it comes to consuming luxury brands, sales of first-growth Claret and eye-wateringly pricy Burgundy have gone through the roof.  

However, the kerfuffle over the solar panels has lead China to launch an anti-dumping probe of European wine. The investigation will almost certainly lead to a substantial increase in duties, which are already 48% of the declared value. (Amazing how many bottles of Petrus and Rothschild have a declared value of a fiver.)

Cue recent panic buying of desirable cases which have been lying in bond in Hong Kong and elsewhere. China imported 266 million litres of bottled wine last year, an increase of 10% from the previous year, with more than two-thirds coming from the EU, according to International Wine and Spirit Research.

And it isn’t just the French that are getting up the nose of the Chinese authorities. China has its own home-grown wine industry which has been protesting about cheap Spanish plonk being dumped on the market and showing up on supermarket shelves for as little as £2 a bottle. Those who will benefit most from this punch-up will be New Zealand and Chile, both of whom have free wine trade agreements with China. All good stuff for discussion at this evening’s G8 supper after they’ve dealt with the weightier matters of Syria. They make very little wine in Enniskillen

- Matthew Gwyther is the editor of Management Today

- Image credit: Flickr/Patrick Goossens

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