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PARIS (Reuters Life!) - French vintners have to take more account of the habits of modern drinkers if they want to survive the current crisis, but they should not go as far as making fruity drinks with a little alcohol, a leading critic believes.
"The current trend is about survival," said Michel Bettane, co-author of the annual Bettane and Desseauve French wine guide, a former classical literature teacher turned wine journalist.
"There are some, like the big names in Bourgogne and Bordeaux, who can continue things the way they have always done and then there are many who need to find a way to show what they have that the others do not," he said in an interview.
"They will have to take account of the modern consumer, and work on the specifics of their wines and ground," he added.
The modern consumer buys a wine in the morning at the supermarket and expects to drink it the same evening -- there is no longer time to put a bottle away in a cellar for many years and then decant it and let the wine breathe.
"You need wines that mature young," Bettane said.
His team tasted 50,000 wines of the French 2007 harvest and Bettane said that in general the impression was good and he predicted that white wines would gain in popularity just as the rose wines had enjoyed a good summer season.
Most wines sell for less than 10 euros ($14) and compete on a world market where other countries also have decent products.
"There is a bit of a loss of taste, people do not take time to eat, there is a rise in fast food, in frozen food. People are seeking the same taste comfort in wine as they would in a soda," he said, but urged winemakers not to completely give in.
"If people are looking for a fruity beverage, let them drink fruit juice instead of wine," he added.
The romantic impression that the French know how to appreciate great wines with good food only applies to a small and rich elite, Bettane says, while most French people a century ago drank bad wine.
At least the acid 'piquette' of old times has now been replaced with fairly decent wines at the lower price scale.
But while the top French wines remain "unbeatable" in quality and volume -- with the exception of some Italian, Spanish or Californian wines -- the rest of the winemakers need to fight to stay in the market.
And they could be their own worst enemy due to the large number of winemakers in France. "I would rather have one good wine merchant able to market five million bottles than 300 to 500 smaller firms," he said.
Bettane said there was a big rise in ecologically friendly wines and sustainable production techniques but he warned against excesses.
"Winemaking is agriculture, it is a human process that seeks to obtain a product from natural ingredients. You can try to use as few additives as possible but you cannot do totally without," he said.
For instance, there are bacteria in the wine that control the fermentation process that gives wine its taste and alcohol content.
These bacteria, when left alone to work with yeast, produce sulphur and make the taste go acid. But by adding some sulphites, the bacterial growth is stopped on time.
There is also an interaction between wood and wine that alters the taste.
"There are some illuminated people who claim that a wine needs to be purely ecological, but frankly some of these wines taste like nothing," Bettane said.
"The wine-making process needs to be respectful of the environment, that is the only way we can go forward, but we can't just hand wine-making over to nature.
"If you did that, we'd all be drinking vinegar."
Editing by Steve Addison