WineSleuth 2: Old mantras live on

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burgundian harvest approachesYadda Yadda Yadda

The good people of Shanghai and many lay people worldwide continue to believe French wine is the best. A given. An unflinching constant, like gold bullion. Trustworthy. The Best, like Louis Vuitton or Gucci. And just like those luxury fashion brands; ask many folks seriously to explain “Why?” and they just wont be able to tell you. Yet, think it they do.

burgundian harvest approaches

As a result, for better or worse, the wine world has France at the pinnacle. It just does. And in Shanghai French wine is here in droves. Way more ubiquitous than in European wine glasses. Are consumers driving choice in China, or industry marketing men?

A brilliant survival trick. Well hatched and implemented. Literally millions of minds have learned the mantra; French wine is the best.

The question I ponder: is that dominance resting on sound solid foundations? Is there relevant modern evidence or is mythology and the hype of yesteryear’s glories at work? And more to the point, does it matter (to me) and the industry I cherish?

French wine, if one can bundle such a massively broad term delineating a multitudinous variety of styles into one phrase, is not the same product today it was 30 to 40 years ago. Has it ever stood still. Can any product? So, am I missing something?

can this imagery be bettered?

We have to go back a few years to add some context.

A different story was being told in Europe in the late 1980’s about Old world wines, en masse. This was the period when the French juggernaut had been floundering for several years.

The cause was complex; exacerbated but not caused by the massive influx of New World wines into Europe which had been the precursor to an explosion in wine interest in the UK. Mainly the nouveau drinkers were steered towards the New World upstarts because prices were so keen. But there was one other factor, which to French producers, was the proverbial elephant in the room: fruit, lots of fruit. More to the point, more fruit than any French wines had at the time. And the new drinkers just loved that fruit.

I was introduced to the wine world as a lowly part time muggins at Oddbins, the UK’s, then, top wine merchant. I bore witness to this full force gale blowing across the landscape which signified the decline of market share for the infamous French wine (lake) that European agricultural subsidies had produced.

Why was this imported product so successful?

Wine fermantation tanks

not the way it was, way back when…

The Australians and Chileans used Stainless steel. For the first time they were temperature controlling fermentation of incredibly ripe grapes. It caused a storm. That those wines featured almost completely grape varieties that were once the sole preserve of French viticulteurs was not accidental either.

“Au Secours!” The French came up with a brilliant counter-attack; an effective survival plan, par excellence. There were 3 prongs to it.

Firstly, they started to copy the use of stainless steel. As older more traditional growers aged, the next generation were more keen to adopt the modern methods and techniques from the New World, regardless in some cases of the holy link to ‘terroir’ as they certainly needed and were more inclined to do something to reverse the trend away room their traditional styles of wines. This enabled the vinifying technicians to emulate their New World competitors’ styles with a French twist.

Secondly, names of grapes began to appear on the odd bottle of French wine, here and there, informally. Maybe on a rear label of a Bordeaux or Rhone, later on the very front of any number of Vin de Pays. Sacrilege, en France: a practice, hitherto regarded as vulgar. Desperate times, mes enfants…

proudly french cabernet sauvignonsacre blue..

Why would French producers do that? Well, western affluence in the 1960’s and 1980’s had brought whole new generations of consumers along who had found useful guidance in the familiar names of attractive and (let’s face it) easier to recall grape names on bottle-front labels.

Who doesn’t enjoy that crutch nowadays, when in unfamiliar territory? This throwback to the French legal move to stop foreign producers using French names, such as Australian Burgundy actually led to the New World just stating the obvious.

“Ere, Bruce? What’s in this barrique, mate?”

“…Err, Cabernet Sauvignon, mate.”

“…Oh, yeah. Smack that on the label will ya?”

And so it was that hitherto unknown grape varieties became household names across Gloucestershire and Essex in the UK, in particular.

The fact was not lost on French producers that the legal move of outlawing the use of French geographical names on overseas products, to protect French Vinicultural and other agricultural heritage (and market-share), had maybe backfired: Usurped by a simpler script that foreign readers could now comprehend, the decoding of labels by using the grape’s actual name was now upon us and this boosted sales of France’s wine producing competitors..

In this increasingly global marketplace, it mattered a lot. So they, French marketeers, adopted that practise as well – but really only at the bottom end of their output.

better tasting wine?repeat after me

The third master-stoke (and I only found this out when I came to Shanghai) is that the French have been promoting one message in China. “French wine is the best in the world”. Over and over. Ad infinitum. The mantra of survival. It’s simple to understand, simple to remember. But is it true?

That, of course, is debatable. One can’t help but remember that without the adoption of New World techniques (in the light of falling sales in the west), replicating some popular New World styles of wine and also changing some labelling, they may not have had an industry left to sing the praises of, at all.

That’s why it all adds up to sheer genius. Easy to imagine it was a plan masterminded by a single bureaucrat, but surely, that  is not what France is. Things are more ramshackle, less polished and that just adds shine to the trophy.

That third strategy is now paying huge dividends. It has forced up the world price of French wine to astronomical levels; way beyond it’s natural quality-driven level; further feeding the theory that they are ‘the best’, particularly in the minds of wealthy Chinese, who do think that if something is higher in price, it is better. You couldn’t make this stuff up. Hindsight is a remarkable thing.

So, a mantra was re-born: The message has rung out in Shanghai for nearly 25 years; ever since China began to open up under Deng Xiao Ping. Coincidentally, (exactly) the same time in the late 70’s, France was struggling to sell wine in Europe and market share was down, China began to open up for business.

Job done for saving the French wine industry, but did it really save French wine? Was something of the soul not taken out of the country’s amazing breadth and depth in the attempt to emulate populist New World flavours. Maybe that perspective is a little too romanticised.

the corkscrew effecta california super tuscan rebound

Of course, other European (Old World) producers attempted to address these market-share issues too. The planting of French grape varieties or blending with indigenous grapes led to the rise of the Super Tuscan’s from Italy and Tempranillo / Cabernet blends from Spain. That’s just two examples. Stainless steel, after some initial traditionalist contempt, was also rapidly introduced to those countries and is seen by many as essential to modern day fermentation.

I guess that traditions and techniques are always changing, evolving to meet demand and trends; sometimes leading by innovation, sometimes trying to survive.

The best we can do is hope that the product we cherish remains interesting and invigorating decade after decade: That, boring homogeneity does not vanquish regional variation and individually crafted expressionism  in the quest for global dominance. Grand romanticism, it maybe.

The down to earth benefit to me is that, while I love French wines, I am free to find pleasures elsewhere, beyond the hype. Under the noise and below the radar. While that may mean that some wines I drink are not of such elevated kudos to certain onlookers, especially amongst my Chinese and French friends, they are certainly easier on my pocket and perhaps a little truer to their own heritage. And those are two pillars that matter to me.

The real benefit to consumers in SH is that outside the distraction of all the hullabaloo about lofty global French wines, there are many gems from elsewhere all trying to get a foothold here too, against the odds. That clamour means that values are fantastic for Spanish and Italian wines. Chileans and Argentinians can be had at superb prices that literally leave the more expensive French equivalents in their wake.

It’s a good time to explore. Need a guide?

The Wine Man

February 2012

Next time we’ll look at those other European attempts to stave of disaster in the face of the New World onslaught. And just what did happen to the tradition of French wines. Just about the same time a American Citizen named Robert Parker had some things to say on the matter….

Footnote: The myth is so successful that in one case a 5-star hotel in Dongguan has reported annual sales of as as much as eighty per cent of the entire annual allocation of Chateau Lafite Rothschild to the Chinese market. Oh yeah?

I think there may be a few bottles of dodgy ‘French’ wine doing the rounds…

This was on the wires: : 80-90% of (French) Lafite Rothschild Sold In China Is Fake

According to statistics for Bordeaux consumption, China is consuming more top Bordeaux wine than the the region produces, highlighting the prevalence of fake wine in the country. see here

 “all wine producers know that mate, the problem is that Chinese consumers need to be educated and this needs time, in 20 years they will be like in the USA, they will buy mainly Italian wines because they are the best as quality/price no one can beat this.” Mario Alvisi • February 2012

Sadly, we have to choose wisely though, for as with any gold rush, there are gold diggers with lesser intent than spreading the glories of the wine world to far flung corners.

TWM

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