It is no coincidence that France’s most famous export industry, and a long-standing national mainstay, winemaking, is on the ropes.
Le Ballon Vert is an Irish pub, however, and authentic to that; not a chain that arrived, complete with fake nicotine spray paint, violins and bodhráns, unboxing from a truck. Surely Irish pub patrons, even if they’re French, are more likely to sink a pint of black stuff than sip a glass of Bordeaux?
Perhaps. But just across the road at Au Petit Panisse, the picture is quite the same: beer dominates while most white wines are in the hands of those with white hair.
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The scene is duplicated across France. One bar owner – a traditional French cafe in this case – tells me that more of his customers drink lager than wine.
It’s not as if the French are new to beer, of course, and there are significant regional variations with northern France, especially areas close to beer country, Belgium, which has always been more fond of beer.
However, it is clear that something is changing. Most supermarkets now stock a limited range of craft beers alongside the more traditional varieties sold in France: tasteless generic Euro-lagers and Belgian rocket fuel, strong enough to cause a hangover before even getting sober, compete with each other. now with local and imported IPAs, and even with African Guinness (yes, really).
Meanwhile, specialty stores like Paris Saint Bière carry a variety of beers large enough to curl a hipster’s beard.
But if sightings are one thing – I noticed an increase in summer sales of rosé about three years ago, although they have declined somewhat since then – the statistics back it up. Students who enjoy cheap happy hour pints and after-hours drinks, there are both short and long term trends at work.
Home alcohol consumption has been widely reported to have increased during closures in France, but it has done little to save viticulture: Bar and restaurant closures have resulted in losses of around 1.5 billion euros.
More than ten years ago, a study from the University of Montpellier noted that the French were drinking less wine than ever: total consumption per capita collapsed by more than 50% between 1980 and 2008, from more than 120 liters per year per person at only 55.
Today, that trend has slowed down but the decline continues, with statistics from the International Wine Organization showing that in 2017, the average French citizen drank 51.2 liters per year.
Production is also declining. Last year saw a 12% drop. The forecast for 2020 calls for an increase of 6% to 8% from last year, but the long-term trend points to the downside.
The fact that this year wine was used to make hand sanitizer is a mixed blessing for the wineries: it brought in much-needed cash, but seeing their famous product turned into a sanitary item surely stings. .
However, the pandemic will sting more. As bars and restaurants reopened after the lockdown, rising infection rates – on September 24 alone, 16,096 cases were reported, an unwelcome new daily record – another round of restrictions introduced this week means that on-site alcohol sales will stop at 10 p.m. in Paris, while Marseille publicans and restaurateurs have taken to the streets to protest the local lockdown that is forcing all hotel businesses to close shop.
Paris is also considering cutting back on alcohol consumption at home, with whispers of an 8 p.m. curfew on the sales.
Which is bad news for French chateaux, although the French government recognizes the problem: with millions of hectoliters of wine unsold, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced a second bailout for the wine sector, bearing the figure total to 250 million euros.
Yet, although exacerbated by the pandemic, the industry’s problems predate the coronavirus – as these statistics on spending habits underscore. It’s not just a growing taste for beer that is to blame. Social trends are simply not favorable to wine.
President Emmanuel Macron said last year “I drink wine for lunch and dinner!”. If he does, he is part of a declining group.
When I was working in a French workplace, I noticed that the canteen was well stocked with wine. But I’ve never seen anyone drink it. Of course, this fits with cultural changes in much of the western world: Lunchtime O’Booze all but ended in my home country of Ireland in the 1990s, while a colleague from London tells me that Even members of the poorly lit trade today is a sober lot: Journalists these days are as likely to hang out at the gym as they are head in the trough at the Pig and Bucket.
France, with its very particular and deeply rooted drinking culture, is also losing some of its quirks. The tradition of parents serving watered down wine to children has weakened. Schools stopped serving wine in 1981 and had been discouraging it since at least the 1950s. More and more young French people are simply not developing a taste for wine.
Indeed, this may explain why when young people drink wine, it is often rosés or sweet whites rather than dry whites or classic reds.
As if all this was not enough, other factors are crushing the wine industry.
Donald Trump has imposed a so-called ‘luxury tax’ on French wine as part of a new front in his tit-for-tat trade wars, as the past few decades have seen Italian reds steal the crown of châteaux French in the fine wine sector. Brexit, meanwhile, threatens a second of Bordeaux’s three main export markets: the United Kingdom.
These two elements threaten to cement a long-term trend away from French wine. The judgment of Paris in 1976 dealt a heavy blow to the reputation of French wine, and that of wine critics, from whom the country has never fully recovered: this blind test competition backfired when it turned out that critics preferred Californian wine to French.
Since then, wine consumption has increased in countries like Great Britain and the United States, and while French wine still has cachet at the top of the market, many supermarket drinkers prefer “New World” wines. or Italian.
Tastes play a role in that, with simpler wines from other parts of the world beating French produce (for my money you can’t beat a good French wine, but I might be biased). Marketing has also helped, with the terroir system of French wine seen as unnecessarily complicated – although one can guess why lists of regions should be seen as more obscure than lists of grape varieties.
Longer term, French winemakers could face an even more serious threat than taxes and reverse snobbery: climate change. Naturally, the French agricultural research institute Inrae kept an eye on the situation.
Nathalie Ollat, director of the Ecophysiology and functional genomics of the vine unit at the Inrae Nouvelle Aquitaine Bordeaux center told me that climate change has affected the development of vines since the 1980s, mainly by causing faster maturation and more high sugar content, therefore alcohol.
The news is not all bad, however. “For now, however, the effects have been found to be rather beneficial in many wine regions, with a greater threat in vineyards in southern France due to already high degrees and more frequent droughts,” said Ollat.
Still, Ollat warned that it’s not just a story of hot weather meaning more wine. For starters, there is a threat to southern vineyards due to already high temperatures and more frequent droughts.
“But there are also more frequent spring frosts in certain regions such as the Loire Valley, because the vines are ahead of schedule, and in certain years, such as 2019 in Languedoc, intense heat waves in early summer can cause severe burns on the grapes, ”she said.
It has been reported that 2020 saw harvests a month earlier than usual, which has led winegrowers to fear that if trends continue, Spanish grapes will grow in the UK – and not grow in the regions. Franco-Spanish borders. There is even the possibility that, over time, French chateaux will have to change the grapes they use. French viticulture is not as conservative as you might think, but it takes pride in its traditions. If changes to centuries-old varietal blends were necessary, this would call into question the very nature of French wine.
“These changes are disrupting the rules and customs in force. They raise questions about the maintenance of the French wine model. But professionals are mobilized to face it, ”said Ollat.
The problem for this totemic French industry, however, is that it will have to contend not only with unfavorable climatic trends, but also social ones.