by Andy Neather

Wine After Dry January

Dry January is over, for those quixotic enough to try it – but the shiver it provokes in the French wine industry continues. Ever since the battle over the first official French “Défi de Janvier” in 2020, when President Macron dropped public funding for the campaign under industry pressure, Dry January has a become a focus for vignerons’ anxiety over changing French drinking habits.

An open letter from Gard producers last year sums up the mood about “this initiative which, under the cover of encouraging controlled alcohol consumption, promotes abstinence.” A pessimistic Bordeaux-focussed piece by John Lewis-Stempel recently echoed this view, blaming a “bourgeois, technocratic elite” for the drop in French wine drinking.

The French drank an annual average of at least 105 litres of wine a head as recently as 1965, and 160 litres in 1935; today it’s under 40 litres. Around a fifth of adults don’t drink at all: last year the nation’s first store devoted to non-alcoholic drinks, Le Paon Qui Boit, opened in Paris.

Worse, a report last autumn by radio network RTL found that 38% of French people never drink wine, and that consumption of red had plunged by almost a third in the previous decade. The survey confirmed French youth’s preference for beer and cocktails, a trend long bemoaned by the wine industry.

A similar unease stalks America’s wine producers just now. An influential survey last month found that wine consumption among under-35s has fallen yet again – in part thanks to health concerns over alcohol. Rob Macmillan’s annual State of the US Wine Industry report provoked a gloomy column from New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov.

French governments have been trying for years to cut the nation’s boozing. Back in 1991 the Loi Évin tightened the rules on alcohol advertising. Even in the 1950s, government posters urged, “Santé, sobriété: jamais plus d’un litre de vin par jour”. (Health, sobriety: never drink more than a litre of wine per day.)

The message now is much tougher. Last month a government TV ad aired showing French people toasting each other at various jolly gatherings – “Santé!” – while a voiceover scolded, “La bonne santé n’a rien à voir avec l’alcool.” (“Good health has nothing to do with alcohol.” OK, so it just made me want to be at what looked like fun parties.)

But with around 40,000 deaths a year from alcohol – more than four times the UK figure with about the same population – the French do have a problem. It’s also frankly unpleasant to hear vignerons (still) grumbling about the 2015 toughening of France’s drink-driving laws.

Yet what the drop in domestic consumption really means for French wine is another matter. For a start, exports continue upwards. In 2021 French wine and spirit exports hit a record €14.2 billion – up from €11.9 billion in 2016.

A large part of this success is down to the fact that France is making a wider range of better, more interesting wines than ever before. Looking back to some of its wines I’ve enjoyed recently, I think of biodynamic pioneer Véronique Cochran and her beautiful Côtes de Bourg reds; of a precise Corsican Vermentino from Clos Alivu; of the sublime 2015 Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux La Tour Sarrasine I opened last night. All delicious, expressive, utterly individual wines – and none of their producers apparently having much trouble selling them.

What has dropped away is France’s daily glugging of oceans of gros rouge: cheap southern plonk, until the 1950s often adulterated with stronger Algerian red. It’s hard to regret its demise.

Certainly there are problems in places, notably Bordeaux. The authorities put the region’s current annual over-production at around 40 million litres – despite it having fallen by almost a quarter (rolling averages) since the late 1990s.

But Bordeaux producers are hurt by a complex local structure of middlemen, with lesser châteaux at the mercy of négociants. They have been badly hit by the collapse of Chinese demand for cheaper reds. And while the region’s quality is generally better than ever, there’s still a lot of rubbish in French supermarkets at the sub-€4 mark, made by some of its thousands of anonymous estates. “About 50 people in the world could navigate through an aisle of cheaper Bordeaux wines,” quips Gavin Quinney of Château Bauduc. “I might even be one of them.”

If the French industry wants to change the under-35s’ tastes, it must first admit that for all the talk of France’s patrimoine, what wine has actually meant historically to most French people, especially outside wine-producing areas, is just cheap everyday booze. Part of the British cultural cringe to Gallic savoir faire is the assumption that the French are all wine connoisseurs. They’re not – as anyone who has seen them merrily loading their trolleys at Intermarché with grim reds and blah rosés can attest.

If vignerons before felt little need to educate the French about wine, they need to now. They might find a surprisingly willing audience. The enterprising Cave d’Erquy, in the Breton town I visit every year, offers a largely organic, biodynamic and natural selection – and there is no shortage of locals eager to try the wines by the glass.

Might that be the solution for the US industry? American over-60s are its thirstiest market: Macmillan blames poor marketing and a “gracious living” image in advertising for the lack of interest among younger age groups.

But the bigger issue in the US, according to Asimov, is simply cost. Sales of “premium” wines (over $15) remain strong, but those of “starter” (i.e. entry-level) wines under $15 are troubled. Or as Everyday Drinking blogger Jason Wilson demanded more pithily last week, “just make better fucking everyday wine and sell it for a reasonable fucking price.”

France faces formidable challenges from climate change and cost pressures. The latter threaten to turn a generation of Americans off wine. But let’s not pretend that health scares over alcohol or fickle youth are the root of the industry’s woes. In a world where consumers have more choice than ever, the biggest threat to wine sales remains boring wine.

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