Blog post

Adieu, not au revoir

Is it just me, or was the Frogs under one roof tasting a bit, well, quiet the other day? Actually, I don’t know why I’m asking you because the chances are that you weren’t there.

I’m not saying that there was tumbleweed blowing through the aisles at Lords, but it wasn’t exactly heaving. More to the point, I didn’t see that many A-list tasters about.

Of course, as a journalist, this was rather nice. If there was someone I wanted to talk to, I got as much time with them as I wanted because they weren’t having to do any of that inconvenient ‘rushing off to pour wine for somebody else’ malarkey.

Tastings are so much civilised when there’s no-one there to taste...

But if I’d shelled out whatever it is for a stand there, I’d have hoped to see a few more supermarket buyers, more big-name journalists and, for sure, a whole load more sommeliers.

Again, perhaps it’s me, but I really didn’t eyeball many of Imbibe’s readers. If this was a ‘Get to know Uruguay’ tasting or a ‘Wines of Chad’ event I might have understood it. But this was France for Chrissake! The one thing the country supposedly still has going for it, given that it now languishes humiliatingly behind South Africa in the UK off-trade, is that it has a stack of restaurant-friendly gloop to flog.

Within an hour of being there, however, it became painfully obvious why so many people had stayed away: France can’t do cheap wine any more.

Oh sure, there were a few diamonds in the dirt at half-decent prices, but not many. When your wine offering effectively starts around the £8-10 mark you don’t exactly have mass appeal, so it’s understandable if those looking to buy with that in mind choose to look elsewhere.

‘You watch,’ said one exhibitor gloomily. ‘There’s hardly anyone here. But I bet the Wines of Spain tasting tomorrow is packed.’

It may have been. I don’t know because I didn’t go. But what I can tell you, having started to process the results from this year’s Sommelier Wine Awards competition, is that Spain is clearly one of the dwindling places on the planet still able to produce wines that astonish with their quality for stupidly low prices.

By contrast, nearly all of the cheap French wines I tried at Frogs Sous un Toit tasted, well, cheap. As one exhibitor acidly remarked, ‘There’s a lot of Vin de Pays here – but how much of it is going to get sold?’

Partly, this price problem is because of the strong Euro (though it doesn’t seem to be holding back the Spanish too much). But mostly it’s because of the employment legislation in France.

One producer told me that they went through the maths of production, and if a grower is to get a living wage, the minimum price per bottle is £5.01. Anything less, and he’s better off ripping out his vineyards.

‘We have to concentrate on our strengths, like the amazing terroirs we have. Price is one of our weaknesses,’ he said. ‘Provenance is going to be our saviour.’

Maybe, maybe not. For sure, once you get up around the £8-12 mark, there is a lot more good wine – perhaps more than ten years ago. But how much the trade, let alone the public, understand it is open to question. Ask yer average punter about terroir, and he’ll probably think it’s a small dog for hunting rabbits.

France, I would say, on this evidence is at a significant moment in its vinous evolution. In the past is the ‘high volume, low prices’ era, in the future is the ‘higher price, lower volume’ era. It’s moving, if you like, from mass market to more specialist.

As with any period of transition, we can expect a fair bit of pain, tears and sulking – not least a lot of producers of substandard crap going out of business. Is that a bad thing? I wouldn’t say so...

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