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Crise? Quelle Crise?

How, I hear you ask, can the French make a comeback in the wine business when they are displaying the same blend of arrogance and insularity which, in the end, defeated the Paris bid to host the Olympics? writes NickFaith

With difficulty, I reply, but they could well spring a surprise or two.

Of course, arrogance remains a French trademark, and was displayed at its worst at the Circle of Wine Writers’ last annual Christmas party at the French Embassy. The “diplomats” had decided that what the thirsty hordes needed was not a few glasses of the native tipple but a proper tasting – a policy maintained despite protests from everyone else involved. The result was that the Champagne ran out before half the guests had arrived, and we were served with tiny glasses of – mostly mediocre – wines. And when I asked for a whole bottle, a valet sneered in tones reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau, “We are not a perb, you knaow.”

That’s enough arrogance, but then they have the insularity, the refusal to combine forces with their neighbours, even to use British advertising agencies (the latest Bordeaux flop came from Parisian friends of the CIVB). More important is the psychological make-up of your average vigneron. The recent changes to the regulations governing the AOC to bring the system into the 21st century may seem revolutionary to the French, but they still don’t go to the root of the problems.

The basic fault is psychological, based on the assumption behind the creation of the AOC system all those years ago that all the winemakers had to do was to produce wines in accordance with the rules and, hey presto, they would be sold. When I suggested to one distinguished French wineocrat that France could be in pole position wine-wise if it combined its thousands of estates with the tourists who swarm through the country every summer by opening the sort of bars, cafés and restaurants normal in the New World, he replied simply, “Ce n’est pas notre metier.”

Nevertheless, there are stirrings of hope. They are based on the French habit of refusing to admit that anything is wrong while working their gallic butts off to correct problems whose very existence they are simultaneously denying. I first observed this phenomenon in the late 1980s with the improvements made in the average quality of Champagne at a time when Oz Clarke and other journos were shouting aloud at the youth, the acidity, the greenness of so many Champagnes. Actually, even now the French find it almost impossible to believe in the idea of honest criticism, which doesn’t help their cause.

So sometimes you have to read between the lines and ignore public pronouncements. Most obviously, this is the case in Burgundy where a process of rationalisation is quietly taking place, with the smaller vignerons now prepared to sell their grapes to merchants who are themselves increasingly quality-conscious. Have you tasted wines from sinnerswho- have-seen-the-light like Patriarche recently? And the same applies, to a much lesser extent, even in Bordeaux, where the merchants are able to get the best grapes for their brands. Nevertheless, the Bordelais have still not been able to grasp the depth of the crisis facing a region that needs to reduce its vineyards by at least 20,000 hectares to eliminate those that should never have been planted in the first place (in Cognac they got rid of over 30,000ha in 30 years).

But critics should not forget the enormous latent strengths possessed by the French. After all, they have more than their fair share of what the Aussies would call Distinguished Sites. And their capacity for making wine is backed up not only by some of the most distinguished vinous faculties in the world but by the even more important work done by the Lycées Techniques which have taught a new generation of vignerons how to make decent wine.

But the key to future French success lies in the way that many of the “lesser breeds”, which in wine terms means Vins de Pays, have begun to understand that the only way to survive is to accept that they have an uphill fight on their hands; that they have to make better wine and sell it hard at reasonable prices. I believe that this acceptance of reality is spreading and that its proponents must have remembered the way Avis swept the board with the slogan that went right through the company, “Number two and trying harder”. For the French are perfectly capable of even more startling surprises when they put their minds to it. Thirty-five years ago would you have put any money on the the fledgling Airbus selling more aircraft than Boeing?

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