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Jefford on Monday: Deferred Gratification

Beaten by a cave: poor Burgundy. Its World Heritage status will, it seems, have to wait a little longer. It was hoping to be accepted on to the UNESCO register in July 2014, joining other regions which had already made it (like the Loire, Douro and Middle Rhine valleys). That won’t now happen before July 2015…or later. It will get there in the end, though I think Burgundy should be gracious about the deferment, no matter how much energy had been vested in the application.

It was, for one thing, no ordinary cave which pipped the Burgundians. European figurative painting could be said to begin on the stones of the Grotte Chauvet in Ardèche, whose 420 graceful animal paintings and engravings were created around 31,000 years ago, making them almost twice as old as the paintings of Lascaux. The original UNESCO convention of 1972 stresses that “effective and active measures” should be taken to protect and conserve the sites making it on to the register. There seems little danger of Beaune’s climats going under the bulldozer to make way for an out-of-town shopping centre, whereas the Grotte Chauvet is sealed off from the outside world for up to eight months a year when CO2 levels inside rise above what might be safe for the fragile paintings. There is no access to the cave for the general public for the same reason.

Because Europe has dominated the register thus far (with 48% of the listings: Italy and Spain have the most sites on the register, with France in fourth place and Germany in fifth), European counties are now limited to two submissions per year, one for a cultural site and one for a natural site or a mixed site. Burgundy’s climats and the Grotte Chauvet were the two purely cultural postulants, with the volcanoes of the Auvergne as natural site and “the slopes, Champagne houses and cellars of Champagne” a potential ‘cultural landscape’ (the status enjoyed on the register by Tokaj and the Neusiedlersee in Hungary or the Wachau in Austria).  

Since natural sites are under-represented, it always looked good for the retired volcanoes. Perhaps it was inevitable that a touchy Socialist government under a president who declared “I don’t like the rich” during his election campaign was going to prefer a fragile pre-historic art gallery to two of France’s most prosperous wine regions.

Why, though, are Burgundy and Champagne so keen on being listed in this way? Why, indeed, was there a big push just before Christmas to get French wine officially recognised as being part of France’s cultural and gastronomic heritage (see the news story here)? Keeping up with its international peers was certainly one reason for wanting World Heritage status; arguably both regions should have been quicker from the off. But there’s more to it.

Since the 1991 adoption of the Loi Evin during the previous socialist president François Mitterand’s second term, France’s wine community has felt beleaguered, insecure and unloved. The Loi Evin was a sweeping package of legislative constraints which principally targeted tobacco consumption and spirits consumption, but the much-loved wine baby got sucked down with the nicotine-stained, pastis-flavoured bathwater and, 22 years later, discussion and celebration of wine culture in the French media is still tightly circumscribed. Put simply, ‘wine pride’ doesn’t exist at present in France, and health concerns combined with a general French fondness for banning, repressing and sanctioning means that constraint still has the political upper hand. Neither Chirac nor Sarkozy, the right-wing successors to Mitterand, were minded to urge their governments to repeal the Loi Evin.  

Yet Article 4 of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention stresses to ‘each State Party’ signing the Convention that the duty of “protection, conservation…and transmission to future generations” of the sources of inspiration represented by Heritage listing “belongs primarily to that State”. Once listed, in other words, wine regions would have a vital political tool to help them fight their corner in government. France herself would be under an obligation to ensure that Burgundy and Champagne were conserved, by more than economics alone, for future generations. That, above all, is why both regions will be back in the UNESCO queue next time.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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