Most countries struggle for consensus as the toxins of social media erode perspective and unbalance vulnerable minds – and France is no exception, so an absolute majority in the first round is unlikely. The election will then be decided by a run-off between the two candidates with the most first-round votes, on 24 April.
Politics is uncertain. The list of candidates and campaigns as I write (at winter’s end) is long, colourful, occasionally sinister, occasionally farcical. There is, though, a fair chance that one of the two candidates in the final sprint down the Champs-Elysées will be a politician who likes to drink wine at lunch and dinner every day, who says that a meal without wine ‘is a bit sad’, and who – when it was time to bid a fond farewell to Angela Merkel – decided that a slap-up dinner at Clos de Vougeot was just the ticket. The present incumbent, in other words.
Since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, French wine has been ill-served by its presidents. There was one abstainer (Nicolas Sarkozy), one beer drinker (Jacques Chirac), four abstemious legislators (De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterrand) and one who enjoyed wine but preferred keeping quiet about it (François Hollande). Then came the sole avowed enthusiast, Emmanuel Macron.
Not before time. When I arrived in France from Australia in 2010, I was amazed to discover that, in the nation more closely identified with fine wine than any other in the world, viticulture was almost a dissident activity, and winemaking the profession which barely dared speak its name. In politics, French wine pride didn’t exist.
The restrictive 1991 Loi Evin, introduced under Mitterand, had sent the sector scuttling underground, muzzling public discourse about wine and establishing a climate of fear which prevented the linkage of wine to any positive message at all. French health and medical campaigners wanted wine drinkers to know that ‘wine is carcinogenic from the first glass’ (just as, I guess, life is fatal from the first breath). The contrast with Australia, whose winemakers were national heroes and where viticulture and winemaking were a source of enduring and enthusiastic fascination, struck me forcefully.
Macron’s own love of wine seems sincere (and pre-dates his involvement in politics). French wine exports, as he often stresses, are a success story for the county. Vines occupy only 3% of the country’s agricultural land but represent 15% of its agricultural value. Wine’s trade surplus helps remedy France’s overall trade deficit.
In a sign of the wine sector’s gratitude, La Revue du Vin de France magazine made Emmanuel Macron its ‘personality of the year’ in January – and yes, the president did have time to come to the ceremony to enjoy a few glasses with the merry throng. He gave a speech, too, addressing recent worries (the ‘Trump tariffs’, the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and the effect of weatherrelated calamities, both recent and to come).
And he also said this (my translation): ‘In the end, wine is the demonstration of the fact that to be French, you don’t have to choose to be closed. That to love our terroirs, our grape varieties, our climates, our châteaux, our ancestral knowhow, the art of the table, gastronomy and the wines that go with it, is also to love the vast world…’
The words didn’t surprise me, since Macron is the developed world’s most internationally minded leader. It was also a clear reference to the fearfulness, xenophobia and mistrust of openness that other candidates in the campaign were doing their best to stoke.
Having often thought and occasionally written something similar myself, though, I quietly cheered. It’s a lesson, indeed, that deserves to go way beyond France, especially as we laboriously try to ‘unlock’ our homes, our restaurants and our travelling lives after the imposed closures of the pandemic. Choose wine, choose openness, choose the world.
In my glass this month
Cantina Tramin’s Selection range wines aren’t cheap – but they’re worth every penny. Nussbaumer Gewürztraminer 2019 (£27.65 Fintry Wines) combines the heady, sensual charm of this variety with impressive structure. The Maglen Pinot Noir Riserva 2018 is subtle, shapely, concentrated and classic. And the Stoan 2019 (£25.50 Wine Direct) is an unlikely white blend which works well: mouthfilling, haunting, densely fruited. High, sloping Alpine vineyards, difficult to work – but in these bottlings the wines fly, the vines sing