What do the French really know about wine?

  • Tuesday 19 August 2008

It’s a country of connoisseurs, right? Not so, says MATTHEW STUBBS MW,
who, in setting up a Languedoc wine school, found a nation whose
wine knowledge rarely extends beyond local boundaries

La France – home to the world’s most famous wines, full of classic styles that the rest of the world has tried to emulate. Top of the world’s wine consumption league, the French are good at drinking as well as producing wine. So much so that the common perception is that wine is part of the French culture, that the French take great pride in their ACs and keep the best wines for themselves. But how much does the average French man or woman actually know about their most famous export? And how entrenched is wine in the national psyche?

I moved to France in 2003 and was amazed to find that the average consumer

has no more knowledge than their counterpart in the UK. This came as something of a shock. When I purchased French wine as head of wine for a major UK supermarket chain, most of the trade suppliers I dealt with were very knowledgeable. Yet after five years living in the Languedoc, my impression is that the general level of knowledge among consumers is not only quite low, but

there is little opportunity for the average person here to learn more. Wine certainly is a fundamental element of the French character, like an inbuilt genetic code. Many people already feel they know enough about it, mainly because of their family history, location or local culture. It is true that wine is still an important part of most people’s diet in France (though less now

after the Loi Evin restricting alcohol advertising and the stricter enforcement of drink-driving laws). It has never been perceived as an only-for-special-occasions drink and it is rare that meals will not be accompanied by a glass. So how do the French choose their wine, how much do they drink and how

varied is their choice?

Official statistics show that the average annual consumption of wine in France is about 60 litres per head, more than double that in the UK and almost six times that of the US. In my experience, I have come across very few consumers (winemakers aside) who drink remotely near this figure. I should not, however, be surprised – in the UK aheavy wine consumer is defined as someone who drinks a mere three bottles of wine a month. Some ‘hardened types’ in the Languedoc bemoan the fact that the bottle of wine drunk at lunchtime is becoming a relic of the past as the health message spreads through the Hexagone.

However, the main worry for France’s wine trade is that many young consumers

have not embraced the wine culture, and prefer spirit-based cocktails. A recent statistic stated that consumption of wine among people aged under 38 in the Republic of Ireland has now overtaken that of France. For many young French people, wine is an old person’s drink.

Not in vogue

As Stephen Charters MW, professor of Champagne management at the Reims

Management School, says: ‘Wine is not seen as a fashionable subject by theyoung.’ At the business school in Montpellier, registration for a wine specialism option still lags behind what the students see as ‘cooler’ subjects, such as marketing and PR. But there are signs that this is changing. In Montpellier itself, a dozen bar à vins have opened up in the last 18 months. Located in the chic quartiers of the city, with great selections of Languedoc/Roussillon wines by the glass, they are full of the 20 and 30 somethings who are the bedrock of future French wine consumption. Outlets for buying wine are much the same as other countries. The added advantage in France, though, is the high level of sales from the cellar door – the perfect opportunity to educate consumers at the point of purchase. Increasing numbers of producers offer tours andtastings at their wineries, a formula that has long been successful in the New World producing countries, but relatively slow to take hold in France. The major exception is Provence, where huge numbers of visitors in summer provide ample ‘passing trade’ for producers, who in turn provide a respite from the constant traffic jams to and from the beach.

Local bias

The average consumer knowledge of wine in France varies among regions. In the major producing départements, it tends to be restricted to the wines of their region, or in some cases, their village. Inhabitants of the Corbières, for example, would rarely venture into the Minervoisto buy wine, even though it may be less than half an hour away. Residents, however, of the non-wine producing départments of France, such as Brittany, the centre and the north, are more likely to experiment, and Parisiens will generally buy wine from anywhere. Taking a trip around any major Frenchsupermarket gives a strong clue to buying habits. The ranges will be heavily biased towards local wines – how much Burgundy is on offer in the Bordeaux branch of Carrefour, or vice versa? The flip side is that some outlets have a very strong local wine range (Leclerc in Carcassonne has more than 100 Minervois wines listed). As one trade buyer commented: ‘It’s no use me putting on wines from everywhere when people only want to drink the local stuff.’ To this end, the major supermarket chains appoint local buyers who can source wines from their own region – something that is rarely considered in the UK. Overall consumer knowledge may be no different from their counterparts in other countries. My experience of consumers who sign up on courses is that they have generally limited knowledge of grape varieties or regions. Although most are aware of the varieties that make up red wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon – Syrah, Grenache and Carignan – only about 30% would be able to spontaneously name a Mediterranean white variety such as Marsanne, Roussanne or Grenache Blanc. The myriad ACs and VdPs in the region are also lost on most consumers, unless they live in the immediate locality.

FRENCH WINE KNOWLEDGE

Matthew Stubbs MW was head of Safeway’s wine department for three years. He has just opened his wine school, VinEcole, in Languedoc, for both French and English speaking consumers. www.vinecole.com

The marketing of the country’s wines can often appear over-complicated and

bureaucratic to the outsider, though this is now being addressed with the successful ‘Think Red – Think Côtes du Rhône’ campaign and more recently, the launch of the ‘Sud de France’ brand for wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon.

In other aspects, the French are much more progressive. Few countries have embarked on such a strong organic and biodynamic programme. Take for example events such as Millésime Bio, the world’s largest organic wine fair. And you seldom see wines on price promotion in hypermarkets in France (outside the spring and autumn foire aux vins). Many suppliers and journalists may well see

this as a positive sign. It shows that wine can be sold at full price without the need for heavy discounting to boost shortterm sales. The partisan preference for their own wines among the French differs little from the Italians, Spanish or Australians. It is also no different from many other

aspects of French life. They have always been loyal – see how many French cars are on the road or French cheeses in the shops. But what is striking is the amount of pride they take in their heritage and produce. As a French friend of mine said to me: ‘The French are very chauvin of their region’s wine – whether they know much about how it’s made or its terroir, they don’t care. But they’ll sell it to you as if it was the best wine in the world.’ A recent student from Béziers had never heard of Vins de Pays de Côteaux de Peyriac or the Terrasses du Larzac, both of which are 30 minutes drive away. All this is not a particularly French phenomenon. The recent Wine Nation consumer survey, by Constellation, found that 52% of regular UK wine drinkers think Chablis is a grape variety, and 24% think Malbec is a wine region. While consumer knowledge in France may be no greater than elsewhere, professional knowledge is generally very high. Most professionals – winemakers, sommeliers – have a very detailed technical understanding. Many academic institutions offer courses in oenology, but have less coverage of the world’s producers or commercial aspects of wine. Most who wish to acquire this wisdom travel abroad – witness the number of extremely

knowledgeable sommeliers in the UK/ US/Asian restaurant and hotel trade. Broader-based educational courses such as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust do have a foothold in France, but most professionals, and certainly consumers, are unaware of them (though recent translation of the qualifications into French and an increase in providers offering these courses may change this.

Education gap

Although it is no surprise that the French in general are less familiar with wines

from outside their region, it is puzzling that there has not been more provision

for people to learn. The main difference between the average Frenchman and their northern European counterpart, for example, is the perceived desire to learn more. Many UK consumers readily admit they know little about wine, but do confess that they would like to be more knowledgeable. This is evident not so much in the availability of consumer wine courses, but also in the practicalities of buying wine. Many French wines still carry no back label, no details on origin,

grape variety or style. ‘Shelf talkers’ in supermarkets are non-existent and there are fewer wine columns in the press. Old traditions and rules of thumb persist. The Languedoc-Roussillon still equals ‘cheap quaffing wine’ in many Parisien minds, whereas Loire reds, Sancerre and Chablis are all highly respected, and command premium prices accordingly. The same traditional values are reflected in attitudes to packaging, marketing and promotions. Screwcaps

are still rare in France and certainly not viewed as the closure for quality wines. The marketing of the country’s wines can often appear over-complicated and bureaucratic to the outsider, though this is now being addressed with the successful ‘Think Red – Think Côtes du Rhône’ campaign and more recently, the launch of the ‘Sud de France’ brand for wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. In other aspects, the French are much more progressive. Few countries have embarked on such a strong organic and biodynamic programme. Take for example events such as Millésime Bio, the world’s largest organic wine fair. And you seldom see wines on price promotion in hypermarkets in France (outside the

spring and autumn foire aux vins). Many suppliers and journalists may well see this as a positive sign. It shows that wine can be sold at full price without the need for heavy discounting to boost shortterm sales. The partisan preference for their own wines among the French differs little from the Italians, Spanish or Australians. It is also no different from many other aspects of French life. They have always been loyal – see how many French cars are on the road or French cheeses in the shops. But what is striking is the amount of pride they take in their heritage and produce. As a French friend of mine said to me: ‘The French are very chauvin of their region’s wine – whether they know much about how it’s made or its terroir, they don’t care. But they’ll sell it to you as if it was the best wine in the world.’

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