The news hasn't sunk in yet. French wine amateurs seem still oblivious. All they have been talking about these past few days is the extraordinary prices reached by 2005 primeur Bordeaux wines: US$447 for a bottle of Lafite Rothschild.
"Since Robert Parker came three months ago and gave unprecedented marks, such as 99/100, prices have gone through the ceiling," says Jean-Louis, a lover of Bordeaux, half worried, half ecstatic.
When I ask him whether he has heard of Mariann Fischer Boel, the EU commissioner for agriculture, and her wine reform, he replies: "No, should I know about it?"
Well, he might want to have a look at it. Her recommendations, if implemented, could change the face of the European wine industry forever. I doubt even she has realized the importance of what she has set in motion.
Lakes of wine
The EU faces an ever-growing surplus of wine and has reached its wits' end as to how to drain the overproduction. Recent trends show that Europeans are drinking less wine and when they do, they -- especially the British -- increasingly opt for New World wine. As a result, French wines, the bulk of European production, have lost markets. So wine growers will be paid to rip up their vines. Brussels wants to see one-eighth of European vineyards dug up. It certainly reads like a sensible cure.
Now, we come to the second part of the reform: "We want to simplify rules on wine-making practices and labelling ... in order to restore market balance and ... compete with dynamic New World producers."
What does this mean phrased undiplomatically? First, it means adopting New World wine labelling, considered simpler, therefore more accessible to consumers. "Simplified" means no more chateaux, no more domaines, no more appellation controlee, crus bourgeois, premiers crus and so on, but one single etiquette, with names of grape, country and year. I tell Jean-Louis.
My words are met with silence. Is he having a heart attack? A flow of furious invectives soon follows.
"But this is insane! It will never happen we'll never accept it. What a preposterous idea. Wines are made of different kinds of grapes, rarely just one. What matters is where it comes from and who produced it. I would never dream of offering my guests a glass of cabernet sauvignon it doesn't mean anything. If I ask, `Would you like a glass of Chateau Pape Clement?' they straight away know what I'm talking about. Simplify labelling? Bordeaux wines have the simplest labelling system in the world! There are 11,600 chateaux in Bordeaux and each produces one kind of wine: you like it or you don't. Easy, non?" he says.
Punching the product
And there's more to come. Simplifying rules on wine-making practices' means allowing "punching," a New World producers' habit which consists of adding sugar and wood to alter the taste and degree of alcohol in a wine. This practice is forbidden in France.
Jean-Louis is lost for words.
"I know about punching, of course. C 'est lamentable. Doctoring wine to make it more pleasing to the palate is like cosmetic surgery. At first, you're pleased with the result then comes the cruel moment of reckoning, when you know you've been had."
In Jonathan Nossiter's excellent documentary, Mondovino, we get a pretty good picture of what is at stake today in the wine industry.
On the one hand, New World winemakers produce simple wines, usually strong and fruity, the kind that make a very good first impression and almost immediately let you down. These "dynamic New World producers" as our Danish commissioner calls them, have a voracious and aggressive marketing strategy to match their products.
On the other hand, Old World winemakers, in the business for generations, are producing wine for all tastes and budgets. Their products are fallible, therefore less reliable than New World wines, because they are made by individuals, not corporations.
Besides, Old World winemakers don't take the consumers for stupid children. They rely on them to make a little extra effort and find their way to more complex and rewarding wines. What the EU's agriculture commissioner has, perhaps unknowingly, triggered is a debate on the choice of a civilization, no less.
Agnes Catherine Poirier is author of Touche: A French Woman's Take on the English.
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