Another Kind of French Paradox

I’ve been pondering on two separate, yet related bits of news about the world of French wine.

1. The French Government wants to make French wine simpler.

Trying to compete on international markets with New World chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, France is creating a simpler category of plonk made without any geographical obligation. Called “Vignobles de France”, the category will allow varietals to be placed front and center on the labels, and allow winemaking practices like oak chips and added tannins. Also, it will be possible to make them with a varietal that is planted outside of its traditional region (you want to make a gewurztraminer in Pauillac? It’ll be a Vignobles de France). And you’ll even be allowed to mix wine from different regions.

Clearly, this is a wine industry decision, not unlike the Cellared in Canada approach that is allowed in the Canadian bottling industry, in order to help the domestic industry win market share, more than to promote wine culture. A concerned Jancis Robinson calls it “the clearest sign so far that France has capitulated to the New World way of selling wine“, pointing out that the approach is aimed at increasing French wine exports to 16 million hectoliters per year, compared with an average of 13.6 million hectoliters in the 1990s.

I’m very skeptical. Without even getting to the question of distinctiveness and personality, which I’m sure would be a better fighting ground, I’m unconvinced that France is in a position to fight on a battleground where price is the main issue. Competing against Chile and Argentina, where land and labour cost so much less, seems nearly impossible, especially in a context where the vignerons are facing low prices that are leading them to bankruptcy (see this article, in French, in Le Figaro, about recent angry demonstrations in Southern France). Bulk wine prices are much lower than they were ten years ago, and a category that allows wine to be shuffled from one end of the country to the other seems unlikely to help in any way.

Besides, the winemakers that are doing better – on the export front, particularly – are going after quality, terroir, personality, through careful, sensitive approach to regional characteristics. Something where New World wines have a lot more trouble defining anything precise and significant.

2. Young people in France are turning away from wine.

Wine consumption per capita has been plummeting in France for the last twenty years. But a recent study adds to the worries of the French wine world, by pointing out that, contrary to previous generations, twentysomethings are not making wine part of their daily rituals:

Roughly 50 percent of young people in France never drink wine, according to the Montpellier report, and less than 10 percent are regular consumers. The rest limit their consumption to two to three times a month.

Of course, the fact that French vignerons are severely limited in their capacity to promote their wines on the internal market may have a lot to do with this continuous drop in interest in a drink so intimately associated with traditional French identity. When you’re not allowed to say how great drinking wine can be, on the grounds that it encourages public drunkenness, but that Bacardi or Absolut are allowed to promote a cool image, it’s no wonder that young people will tend to find the latter more attractive.

Indeed, the French attitude is quite opposite to what is going on in North America, and so is the drinking trend:

“This trend is in complete opposition with the United States, where the major group responsible for increasing wine consumption is the Millennials [people who reached adulthood around the year 2000],” said Liz Thatch, professor of management and wine business at Sonoma State University. Americans aged 21 to 29 are the fastest growing segment of the wine market, according to a 2005 study by the Wine Market Council, a trade organization of winemakers, importers, retailers and others.

I had an interesting moment, last week, at a popular Quebec City spot called Le Cercle, a combination tapas bar/wine bar/DJ place/alternative concert venue run by the owners of L’Utopie, my favorite gastronomical restaurant in the city.

I was chatting with Christophe Pacalet, nephew of famed Beaujolais producer Marcel Lapierre and co-owner of Les Marcellins, a domaine that harvests selected vineyards “rented” from vignerons in the best terroirs of the Beaujolais region. As I was taking in the intensity and depth of his terrific Chiroubles (you read right, Beaujolais with depth and intensity – as it should be), the bright fruit and the serious mineral structure, and discussing his approach, Pacalet interrupted himself in something like disbelief.

I looked to where his eyes had wandered: a table of eight young girls, around 18, were settling in for the evening and were being served a bottle of wine which they started smelling and tasting with enthusiasm. “Did you see those young chicks?”, he said. “You never see that in France, a bunch of young girls sitting down all together with a bottle of wine.” And since they were at Le Cercle, they were not having a bottle of Yellowtail, that’s for sure, but more likely a private import from Bierzo or a nice cabernet franc from the Loire, with a clear sense of place. The kind of wine and food experience that turns drinking into an actual sensory experience, not just a means to tipsiness.

The scene gave a sense of cool, and a sense of discovery: how else do you make wine attractive and interesting? It’s the kind of thing that someone like Robert Mondavi, inspired by what he had discovered in France, endeavored to bring forth all his life: wine as part of life, as part of culture.

And meanwhile, what are the French doing to improve the state of their wine industry? Turning to New World industrial approaches.

Really?

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 8, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Very good post on a very interesting topic. I am just so surprised that there has not been more angry outbursts by French vignerons over this internet issue.France’s great heritage and culture revolves around their wines and for their government to not do everything in their power to preserve it, seems a folly.
    “Vignobles de France” may be step in the way to promote French wines but unless every means, including and especially the internet is used to promote it, it will not do much to save the French wine industry.

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