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waters on wine

Champagne Taittinger was one of the French wineries showcasing their wares at the Vancouver International Wine Festival.Erol Gurian/© Erol Gurian 2007 : all rights reserved

A wine and spirits marketer I follow on social media recently posted to their Instagram story a countdown timer tracking the Canadian March 1 launch of White Claw Hard Seltzer, which has taken the United States by storm. Specifics about the rollout weren’t cited and there was no information about which flavours of the ready-to-drink canned booze will be available or where, but that countdown sticker is something of a doomsday clock for Canada’s wine and spirits business as we know it.

Low in calories and carbs, White Claw and other spiked seltzers are widely promoted as “healthy” alternatives to light beer and wine. Sales across the United States have exploded and hard seltzer was declared the official drink of the summer by influencers and traditional media alike.

Such success saw White Claw challenge pop singer Billie Eilish and the Toronto Raptors to be 2019’s biggest breakout star.

As fate would have it, White Claw’s Canadian release comes on the final day of the Vancouver International Wine Festival, which features France as its theme region. The nine-day event puts the spotlight on more than 40 French wineries showcasing their wares, including a strong contingent of Rhône producers and luminaries such as Clovis Taittinger of Champagne Taittinger and Jean Frederic Hugel from Alsace’s Hugel & Fils.

Taittinger Brut Réserve Champagne is a clean and citrusy sparkling wine that offers mouthwatering refreshment from start to finishHandout

Taking advantage of the spotlight, French winemakers have been front and centre at trade and consumer tastings, holding court at wine dinners and seminars to explain the nuances that make their wines special. If ever there was a time to be out in force preaching to the converted about why French wine matters, this is it.

France and Italy rank as the largest producers of wine in the world. They start 2020 facing significant new challenges in three major markets, United States, China and Britain.

In Canada and the rest of the world, there’s also a looming crisis for all winemakers. Consumption is decreasing worldwide to the point where wine no longer ranks as the alcoholic beverage of choice for adults between the ages of 30 and 64. Depending on market, beer or liquor have surpassed wine or are equivalent.

There’s serious competition from craft beer, cannabis, spirits, cocktails and an exploding segment of ready-to-drink products including hard seltzers as well as non-alcoholic selections.

Speaking at the recent Vinexpo 2020 trade conference in Paris, Richard Halstead of the consumer insight group Wine Intelligence, noted how recent surveys show even though consumers wish to learn more about wine as a part of their lifestyle, their level of knowledge of wine has fallen.

The look of the bottle and what that product says about them when, say, broadcast on Instagram or other social media channels, is becoming more important.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for fine winemakers in France and abroad. Overall consumption is declining, but sparkling and rosé wines continue to be a global success story, with sales driven by younger people and women, who have typically been less involved with wine compared to men. That growth isn’t expected to make up for the total decline, but it shows significant awareness, desire and demand.

The clock is ticking. Wine producers are faced with the need to embrace more Insta-friendly packaging and speak to health-conscious consumers to ensure long term success. Who’s up for making wines that taste good and promise to make us look good, too?

Here are five French wines that offer joie de vivre and represent some of the country’s strongest categories for Canadian wine lovers, including a fruity sparkling rosé, classically refined Champagne and tasty bistro-style red from one of the world’s leading winemaking families.

Antech Émotion Rosé Crémant de Limoux 2017 (France)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $19.95

While this simple yet enjoyable sparkling rosé from the South of France was released in December to add sparkle to the festive season, its mix of ripe berry flavours and toasty notes are equally valid in late February. Made in an off-dry style, this blends chardonnay, chenin blanc, mauzac and pinot noir in a balanced and effective package. Drink now. Available in Ontario, various prices in Alberta.

Maison LaCheteau Sauvignon Blanc 2018 (France)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $14.95

This fresh and zesty white wine hails from Touraine in the Loire Valley, where sauvignon blanc thrives alongside gamay, cabernet franc and other varieties in a region capable of crafting a distinctive range of white, red and sparkling wines. This attractive example is made in sauvignon blanc’s characteristic dry and refreshing style, with fresh citrus and mineral notes adding to the enjoyment. Drink now. Available in Ontario.

Perrin Réserve Côtes du Rhône Red 2017 (France)

Rating:88 /100

PRICE: $16.95

The warm and dry growing season in 2017 lends more stuffing and concentration to this classic bistro red from one of the southern Rhône’s top producers. The Perrin family controls the famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate Château de Beaucastel, but also owns vineyards throughout the region. A fleshy and supple blend of grenache, mourvèdre and syrah, this is ready to drink now or over the next two to three years. Available in Ontario at the above price, $17.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.99 in Nova Scotia, $19.80 in Newfoundland.

Puech-Haut Préstige 2017 (France)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $29.95

Established in the eastern Languedoc in 1981 by French businessman Gérard Bru, Puech-Haut has benefited from sizable investments and high-powered consultants, such as Michel Rolland and Philippe Cambie. The ownership has recently grown to include Marc and Olga Escassut, enologists who are native to the south of France. The newly released 2017 Préstige is a flavourful blend of grenache and syrah that’s packed with juicy, concentrated fruit and boasts a smooth texture with a satisfying finish. It’s drinking nicely now, but can hold three to five years. Available in Ontario.

Taittinger Brut Réserve Champagne (France)

Rating:91 /100

PRICE: $61.40

The house style for the family-owned Taittinger’s popular Brut Réserve is a clean and citrusy sparkling wine that offers mouthwatering refreshment from start to finish. Marked by some green apple and floral notes, the fresh character makes it a natural for toasting or enjoying with food. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, $69.99 in British Columbia.

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