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World Wine Sales Brisk, but French Producers Hungover

If visitor numbers to trade shows are an indicator of an industry's health, then the turnout for this year's Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine and spirits fair, confirms the sector is doing nicely, if not booming.

Organisers estimate more than 50,000 people attended this year's show, a two-yearly event in Bordeaux, a three percent rise on 2005.

And a recent study conducted for Vinexpo by the London-based International Wine and Spirit Record (IWSR) showed global consumption up by 4.15 percent between 2001 and 2005, with a forecast further increase of 4.8 percent between 2005 and 2010.

But ironically the world's top producer, France, remains the only country, "not invited to the banquet," as Vinexpo chairman Jean-Marie Chadronnier put it at the close of the show Thursday.

"This years Vinexpo has been a confirmation of the vitality of the sector," Chadronnier said. "Now we have to re-conquer the French market and give our producers back their pride."

In France, wine consumption has almost halved since the 1950s, badly hitting the industry, and winegrowers in the southern Languedoc area recently threatened the new French government to raise the price of wine "or blood will flow."

Only 12 percent of French people over the age of 14 drink wine daily against almost 51 percent in 1980. And while annual consumption per person was 100 litres in the early 1960s, the most recent figures available show a fall to 56 litres in 2002.

But French producers are doing better on the foreign sales front, with exports last year rising almost 13 per cent to reach nearly nine (8.74) billion euros and showing good progress particularly in the US and Asian markets.

At Vinexpo, CEO Robert Beynat said international visitors -- read potential buyers -- rose two percent from 2005.

Of those, 2,000 were from Asia -- 400 from China, three times the number in 2005, and 150 from Ho ng Kong, double the attendance in 2005. Other countries with a strong presence at Vinexpo this year included India, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

"We have had great interest from Uruguay and Brazil, two markets we are focussing on," said Axel Vallet of Bordeaux wine wholesaler Ginestet.

Apart from the importance of exports, particularly to emerging markets, to producers, Vinexpo also tackled the issue of moderate drinking.

With France in the throes of campaigns to cut back drink-driving, a study by Educalcool, a Quebec based educational body, showed that over the last 20 years Quebecers are drinking less but better.

Educalcool said at a conference that its aim is to convince people that moderation is a rule without exception, or that "getting plastered even once is once too often".

But many French producers feel anti-alcohol campaigns have gone too far given the drastic decrease in domestic consumption.

As Bordeaux wine producer and owner of internationally known Chateau Angelus, Hubert de Bouard, put it: "Not many people drive home drunk on Petrus."

Much of the global wine and spirits industry remains wary that it may be taken down the same road as the tobacco industry and is in consequence keen to self-regulate and take responsible drinking seriously.

But Robert Joseph, a wine critic and 20 year veteran of the wine business, said the industry "will get, and deserves, a lot of the flak coming its way."

The industry had not been thinking of anything more than "making it and drinking it", he said.

"They have not been thinking about alcoholism," added Joseph, who was at Vinexpo to launch his Greener Planet organic wine range.

It was incredible, he said, that in France people could protest about more stringent drink driving laws after having had one of the highest road accident rates in Europe.

"If you make a product that people can do themselves harm with, you have to take responsibilities," he said. "It is it is up to the alcohol industry to grasp the nettle, because if they dont the anti alcohol lobby will do it on its own terms -- something that is already happening in the UK."


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