Saturday, August 09, 2008

The lost generation

Listen to almost any member of the French wine establishment and, sooner or later, you’ll hear them say that the recent ascension of easy-to-drink, easy-to-understand, branded, varietal New World wines can be put down to a lack of sophistication on the part of younger drinkers. Just give these poor unenlightened souls time to grow up properly and they’ll naturally come to appreciate the naturally subtler, more food-friendly character of wines from France.
I’ve always thought this as questionable a notion as the one that suggests one that a significant proportion of the people who are listening to Coldplay and Carla Bruni today will one day wake up to discover a taste for Mozart and Bach. My journalistic instincts have always been to raise two questions: when do these metamorphises take place – at what age? – and why? To which, the usual response is that the change in behaviour is linked to the establishment of a traditional home and nuclear family.
Well, in the UK, at least, I have some interesting data that Gallic optimists won’t want to hear. When one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets analysed the purchasing patterns of its customers it apparently discovered a striking fact. Women who buy nappies almost never buy French wine. To be more precise, their overriding tendency is to choose examples from the New World.
Delving elsewhere, I can tell you a little more about those nappy buyers. According to an official report called Social Trends 2007 published by the British Office for National Statistics, the average age for a woman in the UK to give birth is 29.3 (this is two months older than in 2006, by the way, and 30 months older than in 1971). Other figures from the same source reveal that, in 2006, there are now more first-time mothers in the 30-34 age group than in the 25-29 age group, and an almost 50% increase from ten years ago in the number of women over forty who are now having babies. Over one British mother in eight is now aged between 40-44 when she has her first child.
Add, say three years or so of nappy wearing per child, and that makes for a lot of 30-45 year-old British women who have evidently failed to develop the wine tastes that the Old World optimists might have hoped and expected. As someone who is trying to make and sell French wines, this is not the kind of news that I have any pleasure in reporting. Like other lovers of French wines, I'm painfully aware that the 30% of shelf-space they currently occupy in most of the larger shops is not justified by their sales. With all of the major retailers looking to prune their wine ranges, there seems little chance for France to escape the approaching secateurs.
There's no silver bullet that will solve France's problems - I'm doing what I can with the wines I'm involved with (which can be seen at ) but what I can say is that the sooner my French friends bury their panglossian notions that everything is going to come right by itself, the better.


  1. Robert. I would definitely agree with you at the sub £10 level (the main volume battle ground) that the French should be concerned. However the 'classic' areas of Bordeaux and Burgundy always seem to save the Frenchies. I think that the wine world has almost split in two. The trolley/easy/promo shopper looking for the safe/comfortable and probably price promoted brand....and then the sophisticated/'geeky' wine purchaser who wants to collect/spend more and learn more about the provenance. Also any statistics of French sales and volumes will be massively skewed by the 2005 Bordeaux campaign and the demand/prices. Good luck with HKR. That's the wine rather than the Rugby League team!

  2. Hamish - thank you for your comment - with which I partially entirely agree. Yes, the wine world is polarised between bargain and premium, and I reckon this to be the case for every wine producing country. And, I'd say that this was also true for "Bordeaux", the vast majority of whose wine still sells at bargain basement prices in French supermarkets. Top-end Bordeaux and Burgundy certainly do help to keep French wines in the limelight (as do top Rhones), but that's a bit like saying 30 years ago that Jaguar. MG and Rolls Royce would "save" the UK motor industry. And of course they didn't. Britain still manufactures cars, but very very few that have any "British" character. The Peugeots, Nissans and Fords that are still being produced in the UK could be manufactured anywhere. And probably one day will.
    The same goes for a lot of French varietal wine that is currently on sale outside France. Do American buyers of Fat Bastard Vin de Pays d'Oc Chardonnay really care about where it comes from? (I seem to recall South Africans buying locally produced wine bearing that label...).
    And thanks too for the good luck wishes. It's a pity that France's wine industry is so dependent on outsiders like us - but there's nothing new in that. Just thik of Bordeaux without the English, Irish and perhaps most importantly, the Dutchmen who drained the Médoc...