French wines could face a terminal decline in export sales if action is not taken now, France's foreign trade minister Francois Loos said this week.
France has long been the world's largest producer of wine - although even that crown is under constant threat from Italy - but its dominant position in export markets has been steadily eroded in the last decade by wines from the New World which have been far more adept at marketing and tailoring their wines to modern consumer tastes.
But many French wine producers have been extremely slow to react to this threat, for many years simply shrugging it off as a temporary blip and taking refuge in their long held belief that the whole world knows that French wine is the best.
However, this belief is also being undermined by significant gains in quality by both New World wines and by other countries in Europe - Spain in particular - and the last few years have seen a change in French attitudes, with even the most hidebound producers in Bordeaux realising that something had to be done to stop the rot.
It seem, however, the new marketing campaigns introduced by many of the French wine regions have done little thus far to stop the decline outside France. Although the country remains the second-largest exporter of wines in the world, its share of exports has been dropping steadily, almost entirely due to the rise of the New World.
Wines from South Africa, the US, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand have seen a massive surge in sales over the last few years - 169 per cent since 1994 to be precise - and Loos warned that they easily had the capacity (both in terms of funds and quality) to put paid to France's leadership in Europe.
He said that while the quality of French wine was not in question, the problem was that many New World producers were copying French methods to make their wines, resulting in wines of high quality - sometimes of a quality higher even than that of France itself.
The junior minister said that the French government had therefore brought a number of actions to the attention of the World Trade Organisation, including such diverse issues as customs duties, product safety and intellectual property rights, in a bid to protect French wines from the growing threat.
However, these issues will not be resolved by the WTO for at least a year, and the minister said that in any case they would not be enough on their own to prevent the decline in exports. "Salvation can only come from a concerted effort on the part of producers, " he said, adding that they had to take action to protect their brands and improve their marketing if they wanted to regain the number one slot.