Sunday Times London; 09/13/98
I came back from a few weeks in France (yes, busman's holiday) to read that a survey by Onivins, the French wine council, had confirmed what the country's wine industry feared: the new generation is not drinking wine - or not much of it. Only 1 in 20 French men and women in their early twenties drink it daily and more than half say they don't touch wine at all. The problem, apparently, is image: wine isn't seen as sexy or an element of contemporary French culture. This wouldn't be quite so depressing if the jeunesse doree hadn't turned for its gratification to fizzy soft drinks instead.
What on earth is sexy about these? On second thoughts - I'm showing my age.
Actually, the most dispiriting thing is that, fresh from the hovercraft, my first reaction to the report was: "I'm not surprised." Away from the Channel ports, the quality and variety of French wine on sale, especially in supermarkets and including wine-growing regions, is often dismal and barely reflects the great improvements in winemaking standards at the lower end in recent years. In my view, Britain's leading supermarkets, through sheer size, have become too powerful an influence on wine, but there is no question that our buyers are much more fastidious - buying on taste, not just on price. Far from keeping the best for themselves, French exporters seem quite happy to let foreign buyers cream it off.
Decentralised buying, which should be a point in favour of French supermarkets - and is, where food is concerned - largely ends up being the opposite when it comes to wine. Where the purchasing for British supermarket groups is heavily centralised, to the detriment of local, small food producers, it is much less so in the land of 365 different cheeses, with the result that French supermarkets often stock all sorts of local produce - artichokes, melons, cabecou, friton, foie gras.
With someone rigorous in charge of selection, this can work well for wine, too.
But, often, local buying in a wine region seems to mean taking a ragbag of wines from a convenient co-operative, then padding them out with - often worse - familiar names (Cotes du Rhone, Muscadet etc) from a big merchant or bottling operation. Even the best co- operatives and merchant-bottlers, well equipped with machinery and expertise, end up with some dross, which appears to be siphoned straight on to the home market.
In the southwest this summer, I bought bottles of Cahors, Cotes du Frontonnais, Bergerac, Fitou, Corbieres and Cotes du Rhone that tasted as if they should have been stocked in a pharmacie , not a supermarket. I did find some acceptable bottles, but I couldn't recommend a single one of the big supermarkets I visited as having a significantly superior wine range; the branch of Mammouth on the edge of Cahors used to, but it has closed down.
So how do you buy wine successfully in France? In a supermarket, don't buy the cheapest, most familiar generic names, try a bottle before you buy in quantity and, if there are local wines, start with those.
Stickers proclaiming medals won are no guarantee of quality, but a gold or silver ( medaille d'or or d'argent ) from the Paris Concours is usually a good sign. A little round logo (on label or capsule) of a man carrying a barrel on his back indicates a small grower making and bottling his (or her) own wine, which generally indicates a certain pride in the product.
So far as buying at the vineyard is concerned, this can be tremendously satisfying and cheap, providing you don't end up buying under a sense of obligation. If you have no clue about the local producers, ask advice when dining in local restaurants. And do taste at market stalls: you can find some surprisingly good wines (as long as they're not cooking in the sunshine). I discovered a singularly impressive Cahors this year at a mere Fr26 (Pounds 2.70) from Domaine du Garinet, a tiny estate at Le Boulve in the southwest of the appellation, owned and run with immense dedication by an English couple, Mike and Sue Spring. You can call in almost any time during the summer, except Sunday mornings - that's when they sell their wines and walnuts at Montcuq market.