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Bad Deal

By |  December 10 2012

French wines may be the stuff that dreams are made of, but the actual price of an AOP wine is usually anything but. AOP, remember, is the new AOC, and it stands for appellation d’origine protégée (not contrôlée as before)-the badge of approval awarded to wines that meet specific production criteria.

This is the only hope of salvation for French wine growers, or so the boffins in the Ministry of Agriculture never tire of repeating. Even so, I would be surprised if any producer made as much as ¤2 per bottle on 80 percent of the wines sold. When you add the costs of the bottle, cork, and label to the horrendous administrative costs of complying with French regulations, it’s obvious that wine growing is not going to make you rich. And that’s without even allowing for the rising costs of hard graft in the vineyard. All those two-faced distributors who drive ruthlessly hard bargains while complaining about a lack of character and consistency in the wines should be ashamed of themselves. This is a mug’s game, where the only winner is the wine merchant. Conscientious wine growers are, meanwhile, unable to meet the required AOP standards in any reasonable timescale, at the expense of terroir expression in their wines.

You only have to do the sums. The average ten-year crop yield in most of these vineyards is about 40hl/ha-the most you can expect from a low- to medium-density planting dedicated to artisanal production. Add in the real costs of the job that arise from our inept tax system, and you end up with production costs per liter of at least ¤4, and that’s before you’ve factored in things like aging and maturation.

Anyone can see that the only way to survive in this job is to cheat-and as long as that remains the case, all the bragging about the natural superiority of French wines is at best naive and at worst deliberately misleading. In other countries, happily, they do things differently. In Italy, Switzerland, Australia, and California, local and overseas customers think nothing of paying ¤30 or more for a top-quality wine. Never mind that it doesn’t hail from some great historic vineyard and there’s nothing particularly mysterious about its geology or climate. When people like something, they will pay whatever it takes to get it. In France, on the other hand, we bring everything down to the same level. Our sense of taste and gastronomic tradition are being progressively eroded by supersized retail outlets that feed our greed at knockdown prices. The result is that we have become accustomed to having whatever we want for next to nothing.

I even know some wine buffs-all wealthy and very far from stupid- who will tell you in all seriousness that poverty is the first quality of a good wine grower. Wealth, they say, breeds immorality and contempt for honesty in winemaking. The truth is that in some Latin countries, wine is still a basic staple food, like water or bread. As such, it has to remain as accessible as possible, no matter how elitist it might be, and never mind its (culturally distasteful) speculative value.

In France, the recent rapid increase in the price of the great Bordeaux crus is considered a national tragedy. People weep over the loss of these wines from their tables, filled with nostalgia for the cut-price Bordeaux of decades gone by when the wine industry was in crisis -forgetting, of course, that the quality at that time was mediocre. But when standards of living rise, French egalitarianism quickly switches to respect for traditional hierarchies, especially when it suits our stinginess.

At this point, we expect everyone to know their place, and woe betide any Bordeaux that gets above itself and aspires to the same standards of quality and price as a cru classé-to say nothing of a Corbières with similar pretensions. If French bad faith spreads to the rest of Europe, as seems highly likely, that will surely rank as one of the worst consequences of the economic crisis now rocking the continent.

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