When I first heard about a French government proposal to hold wine tastings on university campuses, I assumed it was a belated April Fool. But the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Offering free booze to students is like throwing chum into shark-infested waters: a fail-safe way to make sure they show up.
Encouraging attendance at lectures isn’t the reason for the tastings, however. They are part of a Gallic initiative to promote the benefits of moderate wine consumption among young people, according to an article in the current issue of Decanter magazine. Such things would be laughed at in the UK — classic piss up in a brewery material — but on the other side of the Channel wine is a more serious business.
Increasingly serious, as it happens. In France, wine is under attack as never before. Led by a strident (and increasingly successful) temperance group called the Association Nationale de Prévention en Alcoologie et Addictologie, the anti-alcohol lobby is trying to demonise the country’s national drink as dangerous and unhealthy. A couple of years ago, the ANPAA took a magazine to court for recommending a handful of Champagnes at Christmas, arguing that the article glamorised wine and should have carried a health warning. What a fun-loving bunch they are.
France has some of the most stringent anti-alcohol laws in Europe, as well as a president who is famously teetotal. The controversial Evin Law prohibits advertising on television and in cinemas, while last year the government took further measures to combat “le binge drinking”. At the 11th hour, a proposal to ban free wine tastings (the cornerstone of “vente directe”, or farm-gate sales) was dropped, but it was a close call. “I’m starting to feel like a drug dealer,” a producer in the Loire told me recently.
The French still love wine — their per capita consumption is nearly three times the UK’s — but that is changing. Walk into a bar and the chances are that anyone under 30 will be sipping a beer, a whisky and coke or a soft drink. The French consumed twice as much wine in the 1970s as they do now. When I lived there in the mid-1980s, it was common to start the day with a glass of rouge or even a Calvados; not any more.
In such a climate, promoting the benefits of moderate wine drinking to students — a rare example of a pro-wine initiative by the French government — makes sense, although predictably it has been dismissed as a “shocking” publicity stunt by the ANPAA. Faced with headlines about health risks and a vocal anti-alcohol lobby, the French are losing touch with their glorious wine culture.
Is wine appreciation something that should be taught? I believe it should, and not just in French universities. You’d expect me to say this, but wine is the most civilised beverage of all, a drink that stimulates the senses, enhances a meal and is actively good for your health, at least in moderation. The study of wine includes subjects as diverse as history, geology, geography, politics and aesthetics. It also tastes great.
The problem with wine, of course, is that it is intoxicating when drunk to excess. My admittedly partial view is that wine consumers are less likely to indulge in binge drinking than, say, alco-pop consumers but maybe I’m being naïve here. Alcohol of all types makes people do things that damage themselves as well as others.
That’s why education is so important. Teaching teenagers how to drink responsibly is as important as teaching them about safe sex. Several French friends have told me that they were served watered down wine as teenagers by their parents, learning how to smell it, sip it and savour it with a meal. To some, this might sound like child abuse, but to me it’s enlightened behaviour. All of them enjoy wine, all of them are healthy and in their late forties and none of them is a boozer.
Thirty years ago, teaching French students how to appreciate wine would have been unnecessary, because it was already part of their culture. But now, in a country where wine is increasingly demonised, this is no longer the case. The sooner they start pulling corks at the Sorbonne, the better.
SIX WINES FOR STUDENTS
2008 Moncaro Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico, Marche (£4.99, 12.8%, Waitrose)
Basic Italian white wines are getting better by the vintage. This unoaked example, made from the under-rated verdicchio grape, is fresh and flavoursome, with flavours of juniper and ripe pears and a nutty twist.
2008 Zalze Pinotage, Western Cape (£6.65, or £4.99 each for two, 14%, Majestic)
South Africa’s most controversial red grape (it was created in the 1920s by crossing pinot noir with cinsault) can be deliciously juicy when it’s as fruity as this. Soft, spicy and lightly oaked with supple raspberry fruit.
2009 Marks & Spencer Gascogne Rosé, Plaimont (£4.99, 12.5%)
Unusually for a pink wine from Gascony, this is made from a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. But very tasty it is, showing notes of redcurrant and green pepper and a crunchy bite of acidity.
2008 Viña Rocabo Rioja, Rioja Alavesa (£5.99, or £4.79 by the mixed case, 13%, Oddbins)
The winemaker here has used the carbonic maceration technique popular in Beaujolais to produce a supple, brambly, fruit-packed young Rioja with sweet tannins, cherry and raspberry fruit and not a barrel in sight.
2008 Yarra Hills Chardonnay, Yarra Valley (£7.49, or £4.99 each for two, 12.5%, Majestic)
At the cheaper, two bottle price, this is miles better than most commercial Aussie chardonnays. Bright and lightly oaked, with fresh, citrus fruit acidity and undertones of fig and melon, it’s a beaut.
2008 Kiwi Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc, Vin de Pays des Vignobles de France (£5.99, 12%, Sainsbury’s)
Despite the nod towards New Zealand in its name, this wine comes from the Loire Valley in France. For all that, it’s a pretty vibrant style of sauvignon, with gooseberry and tropical fruit flavours and zesty acidity.
Originally published in The Times