Wine in the Time of Pestilence II

(Thanks to Cathy van Zyl MW, Neil Jing Zhang, and Paul McArdle for some leads which helped me develop this post).

Phylloxera began to spread through France in 1863 – and reached the furthest north around 1890 – so it took its time.  One of the interesting things about its spread is that while it eventually ruined vineyards in every region, before it arrived most regions had a reason why it would not affect them.  Soil, or variety or viticultural techniques: each place would be spared from what the others had endured – because they were, after all, special (thinking about it now, as an aside, I wonder if this played into the later development of notions about terroir?  Hold that idea – perhaps we’ll return to it one day).

The spread of Covid-19 in the western world had me thinking about this more.  The Chinese attempted to ignore it for a few weeks but – with the experience of SARS – when they took action it was severe and proactive.  The same in South Korea.  Yet when it arrived in Italy they took time, and ultimately only locked down a few provinces and regions (which in turn prompted an exodus of people, many crowded into trains whilst no doubt infected, to the south of the country).  Thus it spread rapidly, and with devastating effect.  Spain and France looked on but dilly-dallied.  Certainly we had the sense here that our lockdown, strict as it was, should have come a week or ten days earlier, given what was happening in Italy and Iran.  Boris Johnson should have seen this and acted sooner; and what can one say about the catastrophic shambles of federal leadership in the USA?  In each case there was a sense – even if only unconscious – that ‘we are different, it won’t be quite so bad here we are more special than those who have already suffered’.  I’m not claiming the Phylloxera was as bad as the current disease; it didn’t kill people. Yet the response was similar.  And while Phylloxera killed no one it did reshape an entire industry.  Hundreds of thousands of smallholders stopped producing wine, vast swathes of vineyard land disappeared (Champagne went from between 50,000 ha. and 80,000 ha. to the current 34,000) and what is now Algeria became for a while the main source of French wine.  The fallout from the current crisis on markets and distribution, if not production could well produce changes that are as momentous.

There is another result of Covid-19 which is having an impact on the world of wine.  The plague has shut borders.  A viral mutation has managed to achieve what neither Brexit nor Donald Trump nor even Viktor Orban had attempted in order to keep foreigners out.  ‘The foreigners are dangerous; the disease comes with them; and so, conversely, we need to focus on what our own country offers’.  What are people drinking?  Their local drink, so much safer, more hygienic that that ‘foreign muck’.  OK – I’m exaggerating rather, but it’s interesting that some producers of English wine claim to be doing very well.  Mark Harvey, of Chapel Down, says that ‘retail and online is flying’ – particularly the sparkling bacchus.  Which makes sense, because bacchus (even if created originally in Germany) is the quintessential British grape variety.  Are drinkers in times like this more likely to revert to drinking what their own country produces out of a sense of solidarity with their compatriots and a need to identify with the national fight against ‘the enemy’?

Having said that it maybe that only certain types of wine will sell, and in specific places.  Another friend who works in the UK wine industry said that their premium fizz (pinot and chardonnay) is not moving so much – because it is the drink of celebration, and this is no time to celebrate.  I always remember listening to Yves Dumont, former CEO of Champagne Laurent Perrier, when the 2008 financial crisis arrived.  When there is a recession, the Anglo-Saxons refuse champagne – it is not appropriate in a time of crisis, when belts tighten and we should not be happy.  The French, on the other hand reach for something which sparkles; it is necessary to cheer you up amid the gloom.

This pandemic and the lockdowns which have become widespread have certainly revealed different cultural attitudes to alcohol and wine.  Today (4th April) I received an email from a high-quality wine store in Dijon telling that me that next Saturday would be ‘happy Saturday’ with 20% off all wine.  They are still open, and you can go there to buy what our government terms ‘purchases of première nécessité’ – essential products, which is what wine is after all!  On the other hand, South Africa has banned all alcohol purchases during its lock down, which prompted the following observation from one commentator:

‘The South African government has effectively decided, without consultation, to wean its population off alcohol (and nicotine) cold turkey, a decision that could end up killing more people than the virus it hopes to mitigate. Unmanaged cessation of alcohol consumption can result in death, which is just one obvious shortfall. The other is that people will either end up brewing their own nuclear-powered mampoer, and/or illegal liquor sellers will take hold of the market.’ 

I’m uncertain how many will die from enforced abstinence – but as history suggests that the final prediction is inevitable.  For those with large wine cellars, of course, it will have very little impact. 

Western Australia also decided that the crisis was bad enough to introduce limits to the number of purchases people could make ‘to limit excess drinking’ – but their conclusion contrasts with the South African one. From the 25th March the maximum you can buy is three bottles of wine a day!  Hardly a restricted intake for one household – especially when you can add either a carton of beer or a litre of spirits to that.

Meanwhile, in some parts of the Southern Hemisphere it has been harvest.  According to my friend Paul McArdle in Margaret River, cabernet is coming in as I write (where the main health concern was backpackers who pick grapes during the day then ignore all social distancing rules as they party at night).  New Zealand, too, has been facing the dilemma of harvest during a state of emergency.  The wine industry, like agriculture more generally, has a dispensation allowing it to work to harvest and process grapes, with protocols in place to ensure safe working environments.  However, in Marlborough, where over three quarters of all of the country’s grapes are harvested, there has been something of a backlash. It seems that some local residents have complained that the harvest is threatening to increase disease transmission – which is a particular problem as the region has the highest proportion of over 65s in the country.  It was reported that one doctor at the local hospital used Facebook to voice concerns, claiming that wine is a ‘luxury’ and that the harvest is ‘risking lives’.

What to do?  Returning to the sparkling wine theme – I commend to you the words of a French poet-cum-diplomat in the 1930s: Gentlemen in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.’

This blog theme will be continued…

Social distancing in the Burgundy vineyards…

3 thoughts on “Wine in the Time of Pestilence II

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