Could 2008 finally be the year for French wine? All the vital pieces seem to be falling into place: the end of £3.99 plonk, an Australian grape shortage and a consumer move to the drier, leaner styles the French do so well.

"The situation for France is looking pretty good," agrees David Cartwright, sales director at wine agents HwCg.

"France is in an incredible position at the moment from which to grow and translate fabulous wines into further sales."

But it won't be easy. France still faces "a mixture of the same old challenges and some new ones", says Tesco wine buyer Graham Nash. "The Australian situation may provide France with an opportunity, but with raw costs on the rise, the latest budget and the current exchange rate, it isn't going to be easy," he says.

"The lack of a big brand is another drawback and I can't see how the category will overtake Australia without one. On the other hand, ongoing consolidation and continued foreign investment in France may change that in years to come."

One of the opportunities France needs to grasp, Cartwright believes, is appealing to two sets of wine drinkers.

"There are two different types of consumer France needs to attract: the New World shopper who occasionally buys French wine; and the New World shopper who has never bought French wine. This last group is quite sizeable."

It is also a group brought up on New World so-called 'critter' brands, named after the animals often featured on the labels and varietal wines. Appealing to a younger generation who have become used to such a simple branded proposition, these consumers find French shelves confusing and complex.

"There has been some justified criticism of the lack of French brands in the past but this does look as if it's beginning to change," says Matt Dickinson, commercial director of Thierry's Wine Services.

"JP Chenet is a good example of a French offer that looks like it could be a serious contender. Its growth rates have been excellent," he says. "In addition, while there is little else emerging to rival big Australian brands such as Jacob's Creek (ironically owned by French company Pernod Ricard) or Hardys, the brands that are beginning to show signs of success are premium and therefore offer good margins and long-term potential."

One of these brands is Blason de Bougogne, an HwCg label that has won plaudits from the industry as a range that manages to simplify and modernise the French offer.

"Blason is a great example of just what France needs to do more of," says Dickinson. "Lots of French producers and UK importers have tried to replicate a New World brand with French liquid but it just doesn't work. Consumers expect and want something different from France.

"We need to persuade consumers of the power of the French offer," he adds. "France has been making wine for thousands of years and, while a lot of rubbish is talked about terroir and generations of winemakers, what this heritage has put in place is a great marketing structure in the shape of the AOC system."

The AOC, or appellation d'origine contrôlée, is a set of regulations intended to control the quality of wines made under certain regional labels. It is a system that can certainly be hailed as a success for regions such as Chablis or even Châteauneuf du Pape.

The system isn't without its drawbacks, however, and the limiting of yields, and labelling restrictions, has held back France from launching a mass-market contender to the New World heavyweights - until now.

For example, at La Baume winery, which is owned by Les Grands Chais de France - one of the country's biggest wine producers, winemaker Solange Dremière has realised the potential of exploiting the system to create a UK-friendly proposition.

Under Dremière, the winery produces mostly Vin de Pays D'oc wines. This gives it the scope to buy grapes from all over the region, which are then blended to create a consistent style - inconsistency being a problem that has plagued the category for years.

"This system gives us the flexibility to respond to consumer and buyer demands," says Dremière. "If a retailer sees a gap for a certain style of wine we can provide it. Now, for example, we are beginning to look at lower-alcohol styles following some requests. For a winemaker it's like being a cook in a huge supermarket."

Rather than simply a nod by retailers to responsible retailing, low-alcohol wines are emerging as a serious consumer trend in the UK. A survey by Tesco at the beginning of last year, for example, revealed 87% of respondents wanted a greater choice of low-alcohol wines, prompting the retailer to introduce eight new ones to its range last May.

This trend is seen as one of the key opportunities for France, which has traditionally produced lighter, lower-abv wines. However, even for those who have been swift to spot such an opportunity the going hasn't always been smooth.

Plume, a lower-abv brand produced by family-owned winery La Colombette, is a case in point. A few years ago, Vincent Pugibet and his father decided to invest in a reverse osmosis system - which removes excess alcohol from wines - after Vincent identified the consumer move to healthier food and drink. He rightly predicted this would include a move to lighter wines. The resulting range, under the brand name Plume, was a hit, and gained a listing in Tesco.

With the brand on shelf, however, the Food Standards Agency delivered a blow, ruling that wines made using the reverse osmosis method could not be sold in the UK as they contravened EU winemaking regulations. The brand had to be pulled from shelves last summer.

"Californian and Australian wines made using this method can be sold in the UK due to a bi-lateral agreement," says Pugibet. "We are also able to sell it in the Netherlands under the same EU regulations, but the FSA still says no. We will keep fighting it, but it is frustrating -

finally France is at the forefront of innovation, and then this."

Will it be the same old story then? Could 2008 be another missed opportunity for France?

Adam Marshall, commercial director at Bottle Green, which imports wine including major French brand French Connection, says the shortage of Australian wines has been overplayed, with harvest reports indicating "better-than-expected volumes". He says that if there are opportunities to wrestle share from the Australians, then Chile and South Africa will be best-placed to do so, not France.

Another worry will be Californian wine, which is just snapping at French heels with a 16.2% share of the UK off-trade market by country compared with France's 17.1%.

"It could go either way with France this year," says Tesco's Nash. "If it can be marketed correctly then it could retake the number one spot but there is plenty of competition in the market.

"This is a rare opportunity that needs to be grasped sooner rather than later and with both hands if it isn't to be missed," he warns.n