France is proud of its wines, and Ferdinand Bouin is one of the reasons why. His family has been producing Muscadet in the vineyards south of Nantes since the early 17th century and, after 400 years, he knows what he is doing.
“A golden robe”, “discreet flavours” and “well-balanced” are some of the terms used by the Hachette Wine Guide to describe his 1997 Domaine Bel Air, for instance. And all this for only £2 a bottle.
But however good Bouin may be at making Muscadet, he is rather less good at marketing it. In fact, he does not market it at all, having given up his attempts to deal with the merchants and chain-store buyers who run the other end of the business.
“The commercial circuits were too expensive for us,” he says. “So now we just sell our wines at the vineyard itself.” As this lies on a road to nowhere except the bird sanctuary on the Grand-Lieu lake, his only customers are locals and the odd ornithologist. They provide him with a steady income but little scope for expansion.
Bouin is by no means alone. France may be the world’s wine capital, with vineyards that date back to Roman times, and the most famous chateaux to be found anywhere, but many of its 15,000 or so wine producers are as small and isolated as he is.
Compare this with Australia, the US and the other countries of “le nouveau monde“, which have produced large wine-making companies such as Jacob’s Creek and Gallo.
These lack the romance of the Bouins. They cannot, for instance, look across the road at the land tended by their relatives during the French Revolution. And they do not have a portrait of the ancestor who was given a Legion d’honneur upon the restoration of the monarchy. But what they do have is a decent product and enough money to challenge the pre-eminence of France.
“At present, you might have six or seven Australian or Californian wines looking for shelf space in British supermarkets,” says Bertrand Duault, head of the French association of wine and spirits growers, bottlers and distributors. “They have the financial muscle to demand the best position and they are backed by a heavy advertising budget. Against that, you have maybe 600 different French wines that are relegated to the sidelines, where no one sees them.”
The Australian and Californian bottles have been winning market share across the world over the past decade, while France’s slice of the global wine trade has fallen from 50 per cent to 40 per cent. “We are facing a crisis,” says Duault, “and we have to do something about it.”
But what? Riot and burn a few cars? Shrug the shoulders and drown the sorrows in some of those unsold bottles?
Enter Jacques Berthomeau, a senior civil servant, whom the French agriculture ministry has charged with saving its wine industry. Berthomeau says the entire French wine industry is being undermined by the uneven quality of its products and by the complexity and variety of its labels. Who, after all, can remember names such as Chateau Haut Gleon from Corbieres in Languedoc-Roussillon? And if they can remember the name, can they remember whether it was nice or not? The solution is for les viticulteurs to adopt standard techniques, and therefore make wine that is the same from one vineyard to the next.
While the best-known chateaux, such as Mouton-Rothschild, should continue selling under their own names, the rest should find simpler appellations, promoting the grape variety – such as Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot – and ignoring the particular vineyard on which they have grown. Thus, Bouin would put his wine into a pool from which it would be sold as Muscadet and not as Domaine Bel Air.
“It may not please the romantics, but we have to accept that to succeed in today’s world, we need to sell wine as though it was Coca-Cola or Evian, where every bottle is the same,” says Berthomeau.
Berthomeau’s call to brush aside the specificity of France is heretical, and “at first people wanted to burn me at the stake”. But the financial logic that underpins his argument is hard to escape. The world wine trade, which grew sharply during the 1990s, has now stabilised; in 2000, French wine exports fell for the first time in recent memory – by 2 per cent.
Nor can French vineyards rely on their compatriots. Although more than 40 per cent of the over-60s still have at least one verre de rouge a day, this figure falls to 15 per cent among the 35-39 age range, and 9 per cent among the under-25s, according to a recent survey.
Last month, the influential French federation of wine exporters met and decided that Berthomeau might be right, after all. If the French wine industry wants to prosper once more, they said, it will have to swallow its pride and imitate “le nouveau monde“.
For the Bouins, this would be upheaval on a scale not seen since 1789. Then, they sailed through the revolution with relative ease, and emerged with land and a Legion d’honneur. But if Berthomeau turns out to be the Abbe Sieyes of the French wine world, the next revolution may prove more turbulent.