No one could have predicted the impact the Senkalu Island crisis of March 2015, ten years ago, would have on the wine world. When President Hollande’s decision to align France with Europe and the US in support of Japan led to an immediate ban on the importation of French wines into China, the effect on Bordeaux was dramatic. Nearly 15% of the region’s wine was being shipped there, no other markets showed any great interest in taking the unsold stock, and consumption in France was continuing to fall.
As Hollande’s economists pointed out, even when the Chinese were still buying, the region was fundamentally unprofitable. With an average retail price in French supermarkets of just €3 per bottle, producing basic Bordeaux simply made far less sense than bottling mineral water or shampoo. And then, there was the little matter of the 2014 vintage. While the top châteaux managed to produce wine that was not too bad, most experts acknowledged that the cold, rainy season had led to 80% of the crop being the greenest, weediest basic Bordeaux anyone had tasted in decades.
It was then that one of the president’s leading advisors, Professor Paul Kwapar, dropped his bombshell. Bordeaux, he proposed should follow the example of Champagne by switching 90% of its wines from single vintage to non-vintage blends. The professor explained that winemakers in New World countries with far more reliable climates regularly took advantage of rules that allowed them to blend 15% of another year – and that some French producers illegally sidestepped local regulations that forbade them from doing likewise.
To support his case, Kwapar cited the case of Pernod Ricard which, despite its successful French Champagne and spirits businesses and ownership of such successful foreign brands as Campo Viejo and Jacob’s Creek, had decided against trying to sell basic Bordeaux. He also called on Bernard Magrez, the entrepreneurial French wine producer who had disposed of his inexpensive Malesan Bordeaux brand in favour of investing in ultra-premium estates in the region and in vineyards outside France. A non vintage programme would, he suggested, bring producers like this back to the table and allow for the creation of Bordeaux brands with the international success of the non-appellation JP Chenet label. Consumers today, he said, were not fascinated by the difference in flavours between bottles of inexpensive red or white. What they wanted was consistency,
Unsurprisingly, Kwapar’s suggestion did not go down well. “We’ve always had vintages”, cried a chorus of critics and sommeliers. “The variation between one year and the next is what makes wine special”. Consumers should not want consistency, they continued. After all, wine was not Coca Cola! “And besides,’ they questioned, “if every vintage bottle tasted the same, what would we all have to write and talk about?” Prepared for the onslaught, the professor had some answers to hand. Historically, consumers had no choice but to accept bad vintages while producers had always been able to take advantage of government handouts that effectively paid them for any wine they were unable to sell. Today, he added, reform of the European agricultural policy had brought an end to those subsidies, while wine drinkers simply bought wines from other regions and countries when offered an unpalatable Bordeaux vintage.
Flexing his economist’s muscles, Kwapar then described what he called the “infernal circle”, whereby the producers of the cheapest wine were the least able to produce commercial wines in difficult vintages. “By definition”, he said, “they have the worst land; the areas where grapes have the greatest difficulty ripening. They don’t have the human or material means to improve the state of the vines and they certainly can’t implement the rigorous selection regimes imposed by the top chateaux. If they are going to sell their wine in bulk – as most do – for a euro a litre or less, how can they ever hope to focus on quality?”
Quoting Magrez, he described a manpower crisis in the region. These estates are getting less money, in real terms, for their wine than they did 20 years ago. In those days, an estate probably sustained a husband, wife, son or daughter and an employee. Today, the employee has probably been laid off, the wife supplements the family income by working elsewhere and the son or daughter are only working at the estate while waiting for the youth unemployment figures to improve.
Offering an olive branch to his critics, Kwapar acknowledged that the producers of the most basic wines would have difficulty funding the holding of reserve wines one would need for the kind of non-vintage programme we are used to from Champagne. For his programme to work, the government would need to kickstart the project, with a substantial injection of cash. But if it did so, Bordeaux could be saved.
The uproar surrounding the professor’s proposals led to the creation of groups such as Défense Unilatérale des Millésimes Bordelais. To support their case, DUMB commissioned a survey of 1,000 French consumers, a satisfying majority of whom confirmed that the concept of vintages was integral to their notion of wine. Kwapar responded by setting up his own piece of research. Students from Montpellier University conducted blind tastings that gave 10,000 consumers and professionals in France and overseas the choice between an unblended 2014 that had been acknowledged by French critics to be one of the best (or least-bad) affordable wines of the vintage – and a blends of 2014, 2013 and 2012 from the same estates.
When Le Monde revealed on its front page that 84% of the consumers had clearly preferred the blends and only 6% opted for the 2014 (the remainder were confused, or liked neither), the so-called Millésimistes questioned the validity of the research before declaring that the results merely illustrated the urgency of the need for better wine education. The state, they said, must teach children to appreciate the importance of vintage – and to acquire the taste for wines that are not immediately likeable. Basic Bordeaux, declared Johnny Aucoonidé one of the movement’s leaders, “is liquid spinach” – something you have to learn to like.
The debate reached its apogee in a special edition of the popular Apostrophes television programme which brought together Kwapar and Aucoonidé. Towards the end of of a heated debate, the exasperated professor asked if the Millésimistes cared whether people actually enjoyed the stuff they were drinking. “You are a simplistic imbecile”, shouted Aucoonidé. “Wine is not about pleasure! It’s a cultural, philosophical product! You are like the barbarous Anglo Saxons who think it is alright for Frenchmen and women to switch from eating andouilletes* to hamburgers. They should be taught to appreciate the traditional flavours of tripe and tannin.”
The circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Professor Kwapar two days after the broadcast have yet to be explained. Did he jump from the Pont d’Aquitaine into the Gironde or was, he, as some have suggested, pushed? Whatever the answer, it is worth remembering his story when you open your next delicious bottle of CPK – Cuvée Paul Kwapar Non-Vintage Bordeaux – and reflect how this internationally successful Pernod Ricard wine has ironically helped to make the professor’s name far more famous than that of the largely forgotten François Hollande.
*A type of tripe sausage