Vin de Merde founder Jean-Marc Speziale with the bottles, four years on and still going strong.
Last laugh ... Vin de Merde founder Jean-Marc Speziale with the bottles, four years on and still going strong. Photo: Richelle Harrison Plesse

Richelle Harrison Plesse

GIGNAC, France: The name might not imply grandeur or an impeccable heritage from a grand estate; the label isn't fancy either, although you could say it's eye-catching. Nevertheless, more and more people are summoning the courage to serve Vin de Merde (French for ''shit wine'') at the dinner table.

More than four years after Jean-Marc Speziale created the curiously named tipple in his native region in the south of France, Languedoc-Roussillon, its sales have increased twentyfold.

Launching on the market with red and rose varieties, Mr Speziale has since added a white and an upmarket cuvee to the range and now moves 100,000 bottles a year.

Tired of the ''prejudice'' against wines from the region, Mr Speziale launched the brand in cheeky defiance of their bad reputation, one that accused product of Languedoc-Roussillon - the largest wine-producing region in the world - of being sub-standard, a victim of mass production.

What was regarded as a risky marketing ploy quickly became a daring statement in an industry known to be rife with snobbery.

At the co-operative wine cellar Tours & Terroirs d'Aniane in Gignac, a small town about 30 kilometres north-west of Montpellier, thousands of cases of wine, Vin de Merde among them, tower over Mr Speziale.

The idea came while working in a restaurant in nearby Aniane, he said.

''I got to know the winemakers and I heard many of them complain about not being able to sell their wine because of the unfortunate reputation: that in this region we are only capable of producing cheap, shit wine.''

''So I said to myself: I'm going to create this wine, put 'shit' on the label and prove to everyone that our wine isn't shit, at the same time encouraging them to discover our region's excellent wine, something the locals have always known.''

The co-operative's president, Eric Paulet, dismissed the cheap plonk stigma as being decades old.

He admitted Mr Speziale's idea seemed crazy in the beginning, but the co-operative quickly realised it was ''catchy and funny, different and quirky''.

''[The name) was a bit desperate, a last attempt,'' said the wine writer Jean-Emmanuel Simond. ''Customers think it's fun, and these are the same people who might buy a bottle of wine based on a label's design.''

The president of the Languedoc-Roussillon Sommelier Association, Olivier Bompas, who has tasted Vin de Merde, described it as ''decent'' but suggested the novelty could eventually wear off.

''I suppose there are always new people who discover it, who aren't tired of the joke yet,'' Mr Bompas said. ''One day he [Speziale] may have to change the name but that's for him to decide.''

Mr Speziale said the dinner table was a joyful place and his wine's name added to the cheer.

''I don't think I've changed opinions on Languedoc-Roussillon wines but I wanted to give people a wake-up call. And if I'm still here after four years it's because it worked,'' he said.