My home département of Hérault has had a short crop this year. Normally it produces twice as much wine as the entire nation of New Zealand, but this year it’s a mere 4.5 million hl (or 1.8 times New Zealand’s large 2013 crop).
Wines of France poster
I’m always amazed by how quietly, almost invisibly this vast harvest happens, as if everyone has done it for so long that they could harvest in their sleep: little fanfare, maximum expedition. The Hérault authorities see fit, though, to buy advertising space in bus shelters and the like, and one of the things that the département likes to tell its citizens at this time of year is that it ‘believes in viticulture’.
Why these valiantly futile advertisements? That’s like Devon County Council spending money to tell Devonians that dairying is morally acceptable, or Idaho spending state taxes to assure Idahoans of its undying support for the potato. That such a stratagem is necessary is a measure of how far wine has slipped as a positive component of France’s self-image, even in France’s second-biggest wine-producing département (after Gironde).
The nation, in other words, badly needs a dose of Wine Pride. It might, just might, be on the way back for 2015.
There is every reason for France to crow about its wine achievements. The wine and spirit sector produces the country’s second largest balance-of-trade-surplus after the aerospace industry, and ahead of pharmaceuticals. (And remember that France’s greatest spirit products – Cognac and Armagnac – are grape based, not grain-based, even if the French themselves spend 12 times more on whisky than on Cognac.) This year, France will be the world’s biggest wine producer, and the world’s top-value exporter. Wine production accounts for only three per cent of France’s agricultural land, yet wine represents 15.4% of the country’s agricultural production value. Around 40% of France’s vineyards produce export-worthy wine. Those who work in wine are only 0.3% of France’s workforce – yet 46 of the country’s richest 500 people have wine production as their primary activity.
Agreed, there are vast and striking inequalities within French wine, as Héraultais wine-growers are well aware. From the point of view of France’s image abroad, though, a bottle of French wine – any French wine — is up there with the Eiffel tower, perfume and sulky models draped in expensive clothes as being one of those things with which the rest of the world associates France. If French wine has a 40 per cent share of the Chinese market despite the import-duty advantages negotiated by other exporters like Chile, New Zealand and (last month) by Australia, that image is surely much of the reason.
Now is the time to act, though. Market share in China is on the slide, and in general the French share of the international market has halved in the last 30 years. One in four French wine domains on the market at present fails to find a purchaser, and one French winegrower in 10 is thinking of giving up next year. French co-operatives expect to lose 30 per cent of their land in the next decade, and by 2020, the number of French wine domains is expected to fall to 38,000 (from 55,400 in 2000). Some of this, of course, may be painful but ultimately beneficial restructuring; nevertheless it is hard to avoid the conclusion that France’s wine growers both need, and merit, a little more governmental cherishing.
Is the love about to gush? Two key dates this year were February 19th and July 7th. The first was the day on which the French Senate tardily recognised vines and wine as ‘part of France’s national heritage’; and the second was when France’s principal legislative body, the Assemblée Nationale, adopted a new ‘agriculture law for the future’. Article 10 b) A) of this, states that “wine, the product of the vine, wine-growing terroirs, ciders and perries, spirits and beers derived from local traditions are part of the protected cultural, gastronomic and landscape patrimony of France.” Agreed, most of us have managed to pen more beautifully written love letters than this, and one can see paw marks of special-interest representatives from the non-wine-growing north all over the wording, but still, there it is: official recognition that wine and wine-growing sites are a vital part of France’s national identity.
What’s needed for 2015 are voices to express that pride in a forthright and unequivocal manner around the world. Florence Cathiard’s flying start in her new role as president of the CSO (the Conseil Supérieure d’Oenotourisme, the body promoting wine tourism in France) suggests that hers may be one, while we can also expect to hear a lot more from the always outspoken Michel Chapoutier, both as the newly elected president of Inter-Rhône and as president of the negociant’s association (Union des Maisons et Marques de Vin).
Back in June, Chapoutier fulminated that “ninety per cent of the marketing of French wine is done by overseas importers”: France just has to improve on its dismal and fragmented official marketing efforts. Cathiard, meanwhile, has already asked France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, to begin taking chefs and wine-producers with him when he makes key overseas visits in Asia and the Americas. And struggling producers here in Hérault will have been very pleased to hear her say that “each little wine-growing domain is a drop of civilisation in a violent world.” Let’s have more of that, please, and more loudly, too.
Written by Andrew Jefford