A forgotten corner of Champagne

Most champagne lovers know that while the majority of the grapes for the wine they drink come from the north of the region, around Reims and Epernay, over one-fifth come from the south – a region often called the Côte des Bars, in the Aube département.  These vineyards are 30 kilometres or more to the southeast of the city of Troyes and home to some very good producers.  The best known, perhaps, is Drappier (a favourite of Charles de Gaulle) and also a very good cooperative which produces the wine known as Veuve Devaux.

Troyes is an interesting town.  Its centre is beautiful, redolent with half-timbered renaissance buildings, it has an excellent cathedral, and in the Middle Ages surpassed Reims to be the capital of the county of Champagne.  It was a major trading centre with renowned fairs for the trading of cloth and home to Rashi, one of the most celebrated medieval Jewish thinkers.  It also has, if you view it from the air, a centre carved out by roads and a stream which mirrors the shape of a champagne cork when it has been expelled from the bottle.  Yet for all this, contemporary Troyes is not so much a champagne (wine) centre.  The vineyards of the Côte des Bars are a little too far away, so it has rather turned its back on the most prestigious product of the region; what many locals first remark about it is that it is home to a large McArthur Glen outlet retail park!

Yet wine isn’t entirely absent.  Just ten kilometres to the west is the commune of Montgueux – a single village which has a bit over 200 hectares of vineyards and the right to make the wine.  Although it is administratively in the Aube département, it doesn’t share the same geology as the vineyards to its east; rather it is essentially an extension of the chalky hills of Sézanne, further to its north.  These chalk-rich soils (with a noticeable flint content), and the south-eastern facing slopes, make it ideal for the chardonnay grape and overwhelmingly that is what is planted there.  I’ve entitled this piece ‘a forgotten corner…’ but that is not entirely true.  Champagne lovers have registered some good producers there, led by Champagne Jacques Lassaigne; nevertheless, the small size of the planted area at its distance from the other main parts of the wine region still mean that it is substantially overlooked.

Even more, champagne in Montgueux might not exist today if it wasn’t for the persistence of one man.  When I visited the village recently I met Hélène Beaugrand, the fourth generation winemaker of Champagne Beaugrand.  She has an interesting background, having worked as a winemaker overseas (including Australia and South Africa) in the 1990s.  The domaine was founded by her great-grandfather, Léon Beaugrand and has been selling wine since 1930 (very early for a vigneron in Champagne). 

Records suggest that vines were cultivated in Montgueux back in the 12th century.  Until the 1890s many villages had some vines, with somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares across the region.  Then phylloxera hit and it became too expensive to replant and not profitable enough when more money was made from wheat or sugar beet – and to be a farmer was better than being a vigneron, who were treated as the lowest of the low.  When the appellation was finalised in 1927 it was limited to 34 000 hectares, as most places no longer had any desire to make the wine (including all the villages around Montgueux).  In practice, by 1950, only 11,000 hectares were planted. 

So why are their vines still in Montgueux?  Léon Beaugrand was a grower in the village from about 1900 on – so had faith in the place in the post-phylloxera era.  He had been a négociant from the south of France, selling to Troyes; he liked the village and planted vines there against the trend.  At this time, although the grapes were sold to the large champagne Houses in Reims and Epernay, the wines of the region were considered ‘second class’.  From 1911 to 1927 were major arguments over whether or not the Aube could be included in the appellation, and it was only finally accepted that they should be in 1927.  Léon Beaugrand fought for the right to have Montgueux in the appellation, and tried to get the growers in surrounding villages to join with him – but they weren’t interested, nor were most of his neighbours.  Nevertheless, Léon was persistent, and against the odds, and the reluctance of the institutional powers of champagne, succeeded.  Even so, it was not until the 1950s that vines began to be more widely planted (Veuve Clicquot came to the village to buy grapes) and only in the 1970s did other récoltants-manipulants – the growers who would sell wine to the public as well as just grapes to the négociants – begin to emerge.  There are now 19 of them there.

Meanwhile, the domaine has to evolve.  French succession laws mean that the vineyard land is being split up and Hélène is only retaining part of it.  The wines will evolve and change.  Yet, based on the wines she has been making for the family over the last 15 years, this won’t be a problem for her – and she has plans for how the domaine will evolve.  If you ever get to find the wines they are worth trying, and show the ability of chardonnay, with its elevated level of acidity, to give champagne the backbone to age gracefully and develop real complexity; the cuvée reserve is a good example of this, a blend but based on 2009 and 2010 base wine, very complex and very gastronomic.  They are also made from old vines (dating back to the 1960s and earlier) which is unusual with champagne, where replanting to increase yields normally starts at about 40 years.

The point of this blog post?  To show that one determined individual with a vision can still shape the direction of a wine region or of a wine brand – whatever the challenges they face.  It’s not all just down to impersonal forces or the larger actors to determine events and craft success.

Flavour and colour: Wine taste and synaesthesia

This is not a post about tasting wine, whether it should be metaphorical and romantic or analytical and scientific (though maybe I’ll come back to that one day).  Rather, it’s about what a wine may ‘look’ like when it is drunk.  This is prompted by two short conversations over a couple of afternoons with a former student of mine in Dijon, Zheyi Mai, who now lives in Provence.  She came to us from Macau and spent a year on our MBA programme.

That’s barely relevant, however.  What I’m interested is in what we might call Zheyi’s synaesthetic response to the taste of wine.  Synaesthesia is essentially a sensory interaction – one stimulus (classically often letters and numbers but it could be a sound) regularly prompt a sense of (the same) colour, or of emotion or another sensation.  Sometimes other names or concepts are associated with specific mental ‘places’.  Sounds, too, may stimulate other physical sensations.

When Zheyi tastes she gets a very clear image which she associates with what she is tasting.  Often it is just a colour or a series of colours, sometimes this resolves itself into an image.  We drank some green tea and I asked her what the colour was, and she replied that it was grey; quite a light grey (possibly shading to something darker) but with a very soft texture, rather smooth.  A red wine we had the previous day was terracotta but also with some pale to mid-blue tones.  I asked if it was the aromas or the structure of the wine (acid, tannin, weight, alcohol etc) which stimulated the image and she replied that the structure gave texture to the image (as if paint was pasted on with a palate knife) and the aromas provided the colours and tones.

Most of what Zheyi sees is this abstract shading of colours overlaid by the texture of the colours.  Yet in one instance she talked of a specific image – she tasted once a 2004 Romanée Conti (lucky lady!) and immediately visualised a beautiful young brunette lady in an elegant magenta dress and wearing an expensive and subtle perfume; the woman walked past her as if on a film screen and turned momentarily to give her a smile.  This in turn makes me wonder if the quality (complexity or interest) or definition of a wine is more likely to produce an image rather than colours.

What is more interesting is that Zheyi claims that the feelings evoked by a wine, which link to the image, is a much more effective way for her to remember wines than any analytic process.  We taught her to taste systematically (the Wine and Spirits Education Trust approach), and she uses that to analyse a wine – but it is of less use than the image/colour relationship when it’s necessary to remember a wine from the past.  Feeling, not analysis, is what counts (and I can confirm that she is a very good taster, with the best marks of her cohort when we taught them wine tasting).

There has been a lot of research into cross-sensory relationships between wine and other senses (notably by the Oxford psychologist Charles Spence and his former PhD student Janice Wang), much of it looking at the relationship of wine to music.  But I’ve never heard of anything such as the experience Zheyi has; if anyone else has had this please let me know.  In the meantime, she’s begun to start producing pictures based on the wine she has drunk (see her Instagram account at Mai.Art.Wine).  There will be more – I’ve just given her three bottles of wine and asked her to produce pictures based on what she tastes.  She says that the images or colours develop and change as the wine changes in the glass, so I’m hoping she’ll look at the wines over a day or two to see if the pictures evolve.  More to come on this when I see the pictures.

Back Again…

25th June 2021

It’s been a long time since I posted; if anyone was hanging out for my next piece I’m sorry for the delay!  It’s been a difficult time.  The most important reason for the silence is the inability to travel.  My reflections on wine and its place in culture and society depend on visiting people and places – and for those of us living in most of Europe that’s been effectively barred until very recently.  The second reason is that over the last few months I’ve been engaged in a major project also related to wine, culture and society.  I’m the co-ordinating editor (along with six other leading academics in the field) of a new book to be published by Routledge later this year – their ‘Handbook of Wine and Culture’.  It has 57 contributors, 45 chapters and will weigh in at around 240,000 words; a major undertaking which has been very time consuming.  More of this later in the year.

The third reason for my silence is that, early on in all of this, I caught Covid (in class – from a student).  It wasn’t life-threatening, but it was rather unpleasant at the time, and took me out for about three weeks – which resulted in a rush to catch up on the day job and even less time on writing here.

I didn’t lose my sense of taste when I was sick (unlike a couple of other members of the family, such as my eldest daughter, who wrote more about her experience here) but it started to become rather worrying for someone who earns their living partly by their nose.  (The man I buy cheese from at the market in the French town where I live had Covid in January, lost his sense of smell and hasn’t regained it; that must be very depressing, though he always as a very jovial air when I come to buy from his stall).

However, what did happen to me for a couple of weeks was that my sense of taste changed dramatically.  I could still smell, but tastes were fundamentally altered, and for the worse.  Coffee suddenly tasted disgusting; think roasted earth, ground and then doused in water.  Many other foods tasted in that direction.  I didn’t even feel like wine – so at least I was spared that repugnance which may have destroyed my love for it for ever.  Unlikely, actually – three weeks later I got back to drinking coffee and everything else fitted in to place.  That, though, was my brush with gustatory despair.  Given what many have suffered living or dying I have nothing to complain of.

Anyway, normal service is now being restored.  Coming up over the next few weeks a bit more about Retsina in Greece, some reflections on a German wine cooperative and a bit on an out-of-the-way village in Champagne.  Plus a few more ‘interesting’ wines and – later, I hope – some posts on Sicily.

The Magon Project

This post is based on a trip to Tunisia which I took before the onset of Covid-19 – but which the pestilence rather pushed to one side.  However, it’s time to continue (the new) normal service and return to some aspects of wine and culture that go beyond plague.  This post also (coincidentally) follows the one I wrote before Christmas, as it is also about religion, although in a very different context.

Most people probably wouldn’t associate Tunisia with wine but – both historically and in contemporary society – that would be a mistake.  Even today, despite having a majority Muslim population, Tunisia makes wine and has it widely available, including in many restaurants. The capital, Tunis, is just to the south-west of the site of Carthage, the major ancient settlement in the region.  Carthage was founded in about 814 CE by the Phoenicians – the seafaring peoples from what is modern Lebanon, who were the first great traders of wine across the Mediterranean (a large wine press dating from this period has just been discovered in Lebanon which may have fuelled this trade). This turned into an autonomous state, Carthage, which at its peak challenged the growing power of Rome, so that there were a series of wars between them eventually won by the Romans.  They destroyed Carthage – although the city was later rebuilt within their empire.  The destruction included a great library and the Romans left all the books in their wake.  All, that is, except the works of Mago, which the destroyers retrieved because of their fame and took back to Italy.

Why these books?  Mago – known now in Tunisia as Magon (who some claim  was one of the earliest settlers although others think he lived around 500 BCE) wrote a treatise on Agriculture, probably the first such book.  He was very influential on later Greek and Roman authors.  So why does this interest us?  Because viticulture is one branch of agriculture, and Magon wrote on planting and pruning vines and making wine.  He even had a section on why the most productive vineyards face north – which is, of course, not what we would normally claim in the Northern Hemisphere but makes sense in a hot climate like that of North Africa.

Magon is still revered in Tunisia; so much so that there is now the ‘Magon Project’; this is a transnational partnership between Tunisia and Italy – specifically Sicily, only about 125 kilometres away over the sea – to underscore their culinary and cultural links; it is part financed by the EU.  One of its major foci is on the links relating to wine (another would be couscous, the staple food of Tunisia – and which has a European history only in Sicily as the island was ruled by Arabs for over 100 years).  It seeks to ‘trace the footsteps of Magon’ by using the archaeology of the two countries; it is also part of an international network of wine routes – and even has its own Facebook page.  The project focuses on the ruins of Carthage and Cap Bon, a peninsula to the east of Tunis where most of the vineyards are based.  One of the key archaeological sites, Kerkouane, was conquered briefly by a Sicilian tyrant, Agathocles of Syracuse, during his fight with Carthage, so I was told.  Relations between the two regions were not always as harmonious as they seem to be now. The Magon Project is explicit about the vinous link with Sicily and Italy – but of course, as a Muslim country it has to be careful not to play it up too much.  One of the interpretative panels at Kerkouane talks about moscato, and the famous wines made from it on the Italian island of Pantelleria.  This latter, just 60 kilometres away, is visible in the hazy distance from Cap Bon.  It also forms a link to the only wine I tried in Tunisia which I really enjoyed.

The key beneficiaries of this (at least while international tourism was operating) were tour companies who could take you on wine and/or history tours outside the capital, Tunis.  The country needs this industry; its infrastructure is woefully underfunded, and it urgently needs more capital.  As an aside, my own view was that the tourist attractions were far too cheap to enter and international visitors could contribute a lot more for the privilege of exploring a great archaeological heritage; Carthage – where you can spend hours exploring – costs less than 4€ to enter.  There is also a national museum with the greatest collection of mosaics in the world which is well worth visiting.

So, 2800 years on, Magon still has an influence – even if it is no longer on viticulture or the better production of wine.  He has been co-opted as an icon for the heritage and agricultural dynamism of the country’s ancestors.

Water into wine

A merry (sort of) Christmas story about the transforming power of wine

As it is Christmas I thought it was a good time to reflect on the source of Christianity and his relationship with wine.  Many of you will know about the use of wine in Christian ritual (Holy Communion or the Mass) and a number of writers have picked that relationship, so I want to focus on something different in this post – the marriage at Cana. 

The stories about Jesus record that he performed miracles and if you know anything about these then you will think of him curing the sick, feeding starving people or giving sight to the blind, all designed to show his power and his mastery of nature.  One of the New Testament books about him, the Gospel of John, records seven of his miracles culminating in bringing his friend Lazarus back from the dead.  Yet an earlier miracle, which the author of the Gospel records as his first, is rather different.

Jesus was invited, along with some friends and his Mother, to a wedding celebration in a town up in the hills above lake Galilee, called Cana.  As is common in most cultures, a wedding celebration was an extravagant business – both in terms of time and money.  The party could go on for some all day and overnight with lots of food and drink provided for the guests.  Managing the party was the responsibility not of the groom, nor the family, but a Master of Ceremonies, whose role was to make sure that all had a good time.  Yet this party, in the home of what seems to have been a fairly well-off family, went wrong.  In the middle the wine ran out!  Maybe the guests were more in need of alcohol than had been planned; maybe the groom was just trying to save a bit or money.  In any event, Jesus’ mother, Mary, picked up that there was no more to drink.  For whatever reason she thought her son ought to know, to which his response, broadly, was ‘what’s it got to do with me?’ 

That didn’t stop Mary, who clearly had a lot of confidence in her son’s ability.  She said to the servants ‘whatever he tells you to do, do it’.  Even more, whatever Jesus had previously said, he decided to get involved.  In the courtyard of the house were six large earthenware jars which held water which was used for ritual purification: cleaning hands before meals, preparing utensils and other forms of washing.  They were empty (no doubt with all the washing of the guests and the wine cups) and Jesus told the servants to go and fill them with water, which they did – ‘to the brim’ according to the story.  Then Jesus told them to take some of the water out and give it to the Master of Ceremonies who drank it, and found that it was wine.  The party kicked on – but the Master of Ceremonies (who clearly had no idea where the wine had come from) went to the Groom and complained to him that the wine he had kept to serve now was better than that which they had started with: ‘surely you know that everyone has the best wine first, and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink – yet you have saved the best wine until last’. Not ‘saving the best till last’ by implication meant that the guests would not usually realise that the later wine isn’t so good any more.

And so what?  I’m not interested here in arguing about the veracity of the story; what does interest me is what it means as the first supernatural action of the founder of the most widely accepted religion in the world.  You see, this wasn’t about curing disease or calming storms.  Instead, it was about conviviality.  A party is running out of wine (the implication is that they’ve already drunk quite a bit) and they need more – so miraculously it is provided.  Much of the history of Christianity is about restraint, asceticism, and piety; yet the first miracle is about fun, partying and alcohol.  The first Christian meetings were not structured religious services, with a rubric and ritual, but a sociable meal (agapé – a Greek word meaning a ‘love feast’) which all the believers shared in and which included shared bread and wine.

The next point is the link to the idea of wine being a great transformative agent – it changes us.  It is hardly surprising that from its first discovery wine gave rise to a link with the supernatural.  There was no knowledge of the science of fermentation; no understanding that sugar is changed to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  There was just the empirical evidence: you leave grapes or juice for a few days and the result is something very different.  It is less sweet and has a strange, slightly bitter, taste; yet it is also warming and – noticeably when you’ve had a few gulps – it makes you feel changed.  There could be no other explanation for this than the logical one – that it is magic.  Some god must have touched the grape juice and allowed this transformation which in turn changes you.  It defines humans, changing them from animals (who cannot make wine) into rational beings with a command of the natural world; changing them also from savages into thinking beings, able to project a future, anticipate their own death, and maybe seek to overcome it.  John, the writer of this story, is thus clearly identifying Jesus with what was – even then – a millennia-old tradition which associated wine with religion, and the gods; a big claim. 

Further, the fact that Jesus used the jars reserved for purification – for cleansing from what is bad or dangerous and thus ‘improving’ us – was no surprise either.  The wine is something which makes its drinkers better people and it allows them to celebrate another significant transformation – a wedding which brings two people together to make a new family.

Nevertheless, having said all of this, it’s also important to remember that this story is not about ‘Christianity’.  At the time it refers to there was no Christian religion, and no believer.  It is a story about Jewish culture, and a Jewish man who tries to teach, as a Rabbi, fellow Jews how to live a better life, and who perhaps aspires to personify some of that better life.  Wine has also been a fundamental part of Jewish religious and communal ritual as well, both weekly on the Sabbath and annually at Pesach (Passover).

*          *          *

Paradoxically, the Christian message about the value of wine in instilling a sense of community, and indeed in representing how lives can be transformed, has often been ignored or even rejected by the Church.  This seems bizarre, given that wine is incorporated into religious ritual, yet with the growth of prohibition movements in many countries this changed, because one mainstay of the campaign to stop people drinking were groups of Christians.  These were invariably Protestants, generally of a fairly extreme persuasion (Catholics have never warmed to the idea of banning alcohol). 

Thus, my grandparents, who were Protestant missionaries in a small town in Algeria (at that time part of France and the major source of cheap wine in that country) were adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol.  It was the work of the devil, and the fact that (according to them) the Catholic priest in the town was regularly drunk merely compounded his heresy.  Money and time spent carousing was money that could be used to ease the lot of poor people and time which should have been spent in the service of God.  Thus, they never drank, and never knew that any of their offspring did – they would have been mortified by that.  It was a joyless, hard religion. Often, with the widespread abuse of alcoholic drinks, its opponents had a good point to make.  However, as history has taught, banning doesn’t solve the problem – restraint is what has an effect and fun and enjoyment are healthy, necessary and good, not evil.

Yet, of course, as firm believers in what the Bible taught, they had a problem.  Jesus drank wine, and left the Church a ritual of wine drinking to remember him by.  So how could wine be so diabolic?  Because, it was argued, the wine Jesus drank was not alcoholic – it was grape juice: that is what as being drunk at the wedding at Cana.  That ignores the fact that in a hot country like Israel any grape juice would naturally ferment within a few days, and that couldn’t be prevented; modern life taught that wine was evil so, self-evidently, Jesus could not drink it, so (not for the first time) science had to be thrown out and reason had to be turned on its head in pursuit of the truth.

*          *          *

In case you think this post unduly focused on Christianity, the next one early in the New Year will be in a different religious context.  Meanwhile, for many of us this will be a holiday time.  So to everyone who reads this – whatever your religion or none, whether the most significant day for you is the 25th or 31st December or the 1st or 6th of January – a very merry holiday and a healthy and safe New Year.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence IX – Wine Consumption

‘Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy’

Sir Alexander Fleming

When I began planning how I might reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the wine industry a few months ago, I aimed to finish by looking at how it might change the world of wine consumers – especially the cultures of consumption and the way that society has an impact on how people drink.  Optimistically – you might say naively – I was hoping that this might be the time when things were getting better, and we would have shown that the disease was at least contained, if not beaten.

So, I got that wrong.  However, I still plan to make this the last post on wine in the time of pestilence (at least for some time) so that I can return to considering a wider world of wine and culture and its social context.  What, then, might result from the upheaval of the last eight months for wine drinkers around the world?  Here, then, is a review of what has happened and are a few ideas for the future – and remember that I’d love to have feedback on this.  It’s a fairly extended essay, so you may want to give yourself a little time to engage with it. The first point is that different places responded to the disease in different ways and with often widely fluctuating consumption levels over the first months of the crisis.  In the very early stages of lockdown in the UK people said they were drinking more (though not ‘too much’), although it seemed that this was less beer and cider.  By May this trend to drink more was noticeable with lunchtime and online drinking becoming more common but that people were spending less per bottle. So, the apparent trend of recent years of ‘less but better’ went into reverse for a while!  Young people were least likely to drink more but those aged 25-54 were most likely to increase consumption. By June and July, however, drinking levels seemed to be declining but this was confused by other reports of record sales (e.g. for Naked Wines, during July).  The easing of restrictions on eating out also stimulated an increase in drinking.  The other key change was the decline in consumption early on, but with a rebound once lockdown ended and there was something to celebrate (and no longer the stigma of drinking a celebratory wine during a time of death, depression and decline).

Nevertheless, the trends in the UK weren’t repeated everywhere.  I’ve already noted the success of champagne in the USA for much of the period of struggle against the disease; high-involvement drinkers there were generally spending more, unlike their British equivalents. Australians drank rather more wine but Canadians less in the early stages. In Germany wine consumption was increasing before the onset of the crisis, and stayed higher, whereas it the Netherlands an early increase was not sustained, with Generation Z drinkers reducing their intake.  Sweden, which pursued a much less controlled response to the virus, allowing bars and restaurants to stay open, saw much less change in drinking behaviour – although the Swedes did start to drink less frequently. 

My own research amongst members of the Institute of Masters of Wine, which I’ve commented on before suggests that women were drinking more (which I think, for a time at least was reflected in the wider population), no Australians were drinking less, and some were drinking better by raiding their cellar.  Ritual and the need for little celebrations became important – and wine does offer the chance for a link to a wider world.

What is also interesting is what and when people were drinking.  Local wines were sought out (see below for more on this); large brands (which offer security in a time of threat) did quite well – at least initially – in Australia but smaller producers suffered. Wines available from online stores did well even when overall consumption was declining in the UK.  Consumers also seemed to be stocking up rather than buying for single occasions and buying in anticipation of running out, rather than waiting until they had drunk everything.

Meanwhile, the pandemic reinvigorated the lobby which opposes alcohol consumption on health grounds, and there is some evidence that certain consumers took the need to improve their health seriously and decided to drink less.  However, the (serious) arguments against the abuse of alcohol founder on the need people have during a crisis for treats and easy pleasures, and things which provide a reminder of a former, more secure and wider world; one of the things that clearly offers those links is wine.  Having said that, sales of low-alcohol beers increased substantially in the USA and the UK in the early months of the crisis.

*          *          *

One of the most interesting graphics that I saw during the earlier phase of Covid-19 was from the excellent industry research organisation, Wine Intelligence.  This was shown in an online presentation, in early June, focused on the United States (primarily concerned with sustainability).  The graphic reflects how people refocused their drinking choices more towards domestic wines in the early stages of the pandemic.  Interestingly it also shows the regions from which people are buying less wine.

(From a webinar: ‘Consumer and Trade Perceptions on Sustainable Wine’: https://wineinstitute.org/press-releases/consumer-trade-research-shows-increased-demand-for-sustainably-produced-wine/)

As one would expect, consumers tended to shift towards drinking US wine.  This was the key take-out from the presentation.  There are a probably couple of reasons for this.  First, Covid-19 was an alien, invasive entity (‘the Chinese disease’ as President Trump insisted on calling it).  This sense of being surrounded by a dangerous and unknown alien world tends to make people focus on what is local, communitarian and perceived as safe (and remember in this regard the Americans are particularly resistant to travelling overseas, which would help them to see how a wider world works.)  The second reason for this shift is undoubtedly because their economy was taking a hit and Americans would, quite reasonably, have wanted to do their bit to help it back to normal levels by buying more domestic goods.  So far, so logical.

However, I feel the graphic has some other interesting implications.  (These are highly speculative and I only have a hunch to support them, not hard data – so if you want to dismiss this as the ramblings of an ignoramus that’s fine).  The first implication is specifically about the performance of Californian wine.  Those buying more of it are much more than the overall increase in American wine purchasing – but the state also registers a higher percentage of consumers who chose to buy less wine from the state.  Why the two extremes?  Think back to the early stages of the crisis in the USA – a federal government that appears to play down the scale of the pandemic and takes no active role in combating it – rather leaving that to the states.  Some of those states, notably New York and California, take the threat seriously, work hard to contain the disease, and are vociferous in their opposition to the laissez faire attitude of the national leaders.  Meanwhile Trump and his allies aggressively attack those state governments suggesting that they have been hard-hit due to their own public health or organisational deficiencies.  The USA is now, notoriously, a very divided, tribal society, with about one third of the population taking fairly hard-line and non-compromising positions on the left and on the right.  My interpretation of the data is that those who broadly oppose the national government will be happy to identify with (and buy from) a state which challenges it.  Yet, when we look at those buying less from California, the percentage has also increased – which suggests that those with sympathy for the President and dislike for the critical stance of the state leadership show their distaste in their unwillingness to drink Californian wine.

What follows is even more speculative – and statisticians will complain that there is no significance level in the data.  We might, however, draw from this that the higher number of those more likely to drink Californian wine compared with those drinking less (19% more and 11% less) means that wine drinkers are more likely to be opponents of the President than his supporters.  Given the demographics of core Trump support, this would seem quite possible.

There is another aspect to this, moreover, which I find interesting.  If you look at those who have changed buying behaviour to purchase more foreign wine there are variable but low numbers for each country.  However, if you look at the negative figures – those turning against wines for other countries, three stand out as being poor performers: France, Spain and Italy, all registering 20% of drinkers who are buying less of their wine.  One other country, New Zealand, stands out for losing less of its market share than anywhere else.  Now, at this time European countries (especially Italy and Spain and to a lesser extent France) appeared to be coping badly in response to the pandemic.  New Zealand famously was (and has consistently) managed to contain it with minimum damage to health and disruption to the country.  There is a suggestion here that people’s willingness to buy wine has a link to an apparent (possibly subconscious) ‘cleanliness’ or ‘uncleanliness’ of a place.  Perhaps, by association with the origin, we may become infected by drinking the wine from that place – so it becomes taboo.  Note that politics does not seem to be so much of an issue in this response.  The government in France is centre-right, Italy populist and left, and Spain and New Zealand socialist.  Perhaps this suggests we need to broaden our view of what makes a country a suitable source of imported wine beyond the obviously political and diplomatic and include factors of perceived healthiness or factors which may provoke distaste, danger or a fear of contamination.

The interesting outlier in this is Chinese wine.  Only 15% are ‘actively buying less wine from’ China, so despite its stigmatisation as the ‘source’ (even creator) of Covid-19 it is apparently less actively targeted than the European nations.  However, at this point the wording of the question that is posed is important.  Wine drinkers would have been much more likely to buy French or Italian wine (with imports from both countries worth over $2 billion) than wines from China (under $15 million) so most people would not need to ‘actively buy less’ to drink no Chinese wine.

*          *          *

So how might all of this change the future of wine consumption?  Here are a few ideas – but it is important to remember that national differences, even between apparently similar cultures, can substantially alter how behaviour evolves.  Furthermore, as I said right at the onset of the crisis, epidemics like this don’t usually introduce revolutionary change – rather they tend to accelerate changes which are already in motion.  First, this may be the point where the millennial generation (now aged about 24-40, although the precise ages vary substantially) finally moves to drinking wine rather than beer and spirits. This move, much anticipated (including by Millennials themselves) sees a shift away from alcohol volume (beer, spirits and especially premixed drinks) to lower quantity but aesthetic value.  One American commentator has suggested that this will be the ‘awakening’ and the point at which this cohort wine consumption for the next few decades.  Certainly, while young people are careful to get value for money, they don’t equate value with paying less, and they will buy more expensive things if they consider them worth it.  There are a couple of caveats here, however: the first is that almost all research on Millennials is based on those in the USA, rather than worldwide and previous academic research has reinforced that national differences have an impact.  The second limit to this is that the successors to the Millennials, Generation Z is showing a marked reluctance to drink alcohol compared with previous age groups which may skew the longer term wine consumption trend.

Next, will women drink more wine from now on?  Confinement freed many from the thought of the next morning and the need to be up bright and early to get the children to school (still, until now, regularly a gender-defined role).  In the wake of #MeToo confinement, with fathers forced to be at home as well, may accelerate a move towards consumption equality which was already in train for those who were not mothers.  Perhaps even more important will women be equally involved in wine selection – hitherto generally regarded as a male domain, even where women have been drinking as much as their male counterparts.

Third, perhaps we will see the ‘new occasions’ for drinking become more embedded in our lives.  Online aperitifs are, anecdotally, less satisfying than the real thing when everyone is present – but now we have experienced it (especially with those who are far from us) it is unlikely to go away, and for the more wine interested at least it is likely to increase in popularity.  Again, the use of the internet for exploring wine has been growing for a number of years now, with some forays into drinking during webinars, but now it has moved away from mere education and into the social sphere, and will probably continue even if it is only second best.

Does this all mean boom time for wine producers?  Perhaps.  There is also talk that we will mirror what happened after the First World War and Spanish ‘flu a century ago, and report the exuberance, dynamism and excess of the roaring 20s.

This would be a reaction to the constraints, austerity and state control of our pleasure during the current situation; we’ll want to party every night, it has been argued.  However, if wine factors into partying, what kind of wine will it be?  Serious and expensive wines (top-flight burgundy, Napa Valley Cabernet or Penfold’s Grange) don’t really fit into nightclubs.  So are we going to see an acceleration of the popularity of undemanding pinot grigio which doesn’t need much thought while we’re dancing, or of fizz (everything from prosecco to champagne), and pink wine for the summer pool parties?  Sparkling wine especially (the one wine consumers consider is ‘dynamic’ – in comparison to most wine which is static or quiet) may continue its upward growth patterns if our world finally becomes more active and frenetic.

The way we buy wine will continue to change rapidly also.  Purchasing was already going online (especially in the most wired-up countries such as China).  That is going to accelerate further.  However, it may be that people will be in the habit of buying more less often.  One of my friends who makes wine in France noted early on in the pandemic that ‘instead of going to a caviste and buying one bottle people are buying six bottles; it’s a big change’ and as I recorded above there is evidence that consumers are stocking up for a period and not buying just when they need a drink.

Meanwhile, the environmental movement which was advancing rapidly and energetically in the two years before Covid-19 hit is also benefiting from some aspects of the crisis.  The threat from the sudden onset of the disease has probably made many of us more responsive to the looming threat from climate change and unsustainable lifestyles – and the fact that this threat could crystallise at any minute.  Wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters while the sickness has dominated will have seemed more intensive harbingers of how our world is deteriorating.  Zoom means we need to travel less for meetings and quarantine makes it less attractive to travel for pleasure.  Many of us noted the reduction in pollution when we had to work form home and the decreased costs associated with journeys to and for work.  So, do we buy wine that is more environmentally acceptable?  That means wine which travels less distance, comes in lighter bottles or even – as is increasingly common – isn’t in bottles at all?

All of the above suggests that the move to drinking more wines locally and less imported wine may be part of a longer-term trend.  Even if the tide of political populism in the world retreats a little in the near future (we’ll see in another week if that is the case!) the resurgence of local identity and commitment seems to have settled in for the mid to long term.  Whatever our political outlook many of us are willing to focus on regional or national products to help our immediate community.  Good news maybe for English, German and US wine producers; less so maybe for New Zealanders, South Africans and other export-focused wine industries.

Yet even if we wish to support local businesses, how many bars and restaurants will actually remain when we come out of all of this?  Despite government support in the small to mid-term a number of food and hospitality businesses have already given up and I suspect that the post-virus economic rebalancing will lead more to follow.  Does this therefore mean a continuation of the growing trend to drink at home?  Yet wine is a social drink, so how do we involve others in our drinking if we are going out less?  Perhaps, however, the return of the ‘roaring 20s’ that many foresee will reverse the trend and reinvigorate an apparently failing service sector.

In this context, what will become of wine tourism?  It has been a key factor for many regions in the long-term growth of wine industries and the creation of place attachment and regional brand loyalties.  Yet, if we travel less, and overseas tourists become less common, how will that play out in the continued growth of many new wine regions and emerging countries?  Again South Africa, Australia and New Zealand (with strict limits on foreign tourists coming in for the time being) and many emerging countries in eastern Europe or the Mediterranean may suffer as a result and another way of profiling their wines and building longer-term loyalty will be lost (as well as many jobs in the tourism sector). The last thing I want to mention is nothing to do with wine: it is the growth of ‘hard seltzers‘. For those, like me, who have been sidetracked by their politics from following the really important developments in American life, these are flavoured, alcoholic mineral waters.  They were only invented in 2013, sales in 2018 totalled $210 million p.a., this went up by almost 600% in the year before Covid-19 and by the end of June this year the 2019 figure had already been exceeded.  So why is this important in a blog about wine?  Well, wine may fulfil many consumer needs.  Of course it tastes good, but at some moments wine is about authenticity, at others it is about aesthetic pleasure – the sense of beauty; it has a lot of symbolic meaning and is a great social lubricant.  While alcohol and its effect are part of its attraction it is rare that people only drink wine for the impact of the alcohol.  Yet with hard seltzers we seem to have reached that end of the spectrum a drink only consumed because it is an easy (the drinks may be sweetened, albeit slightly), unchallenging (they are lightly flavoured) source of alcohol.  So what does this say to us?  That, for some people, the key issue with drinking in a period of pandemic is just to feel better.  There is no story here, no intellectual interest, no authentic sense of link to place.  Can that trend last?

This blog theme will not be continued…  At least for the time being.  Normal service on wine and culture is now being resumed.

The Golden Slope of the Côte d’Or.

This is the perfect day for looking at the changing, autumnal colours of Burgundy vineyards in the Côte d’Or.  Still touches of green or lime green here or there, but more intensely yellow, gold and old gold through to orange and occasional flashes of carmine.

The Côte d’Or – literally the ‘golden slope’ – got its name from the autumn colours on the escarpment that runs for about 55 kilometres from Dijon south-west beyond Beaune, down to Maranges.  Yet more than that, the name of the vineyard gave the name to the local département – equivalent to a shire or county.

Nearly all départements in France are named after geographical features – overwhelmingly rivers or mountains.  A few – such as the two Savoies, are named after a historical region, but that is rare.  Two, however, have a name derived from local agriculture.  One is a spirit – Calvados, in Normandy, named after the apple brandy which is made there; the other is the Côte d’Or.  Thus such is the renown of the wines made on it, this administrative region of 8760 km2 takes its name from a narrow, short strip of vineyard land.

You could also think that, echoing the old-gold gleam of a good aged Montrachet, the name comes from the colour of the white wines here.  More prosaically it’s possible to see in the name a reflection of the value that the wines now bring to the vignerons and negociants of the region.  Yet maybe, in the most recent years, it could be the value brought merely because of the ownership of the land.  With the top vineyard land now selling for 10, 13 even more than 30 million euros per hectare those who sit on this soil are also sitting on gold.  The impact which this will have on the future economy and social structure of the region is complex – and worth returning to in the future.

Wine and Women

Over the last six months I’ve focused all my posts on wine in the time of Covid-19. I’ll move on from that topic shortly – but one of the results of this has been that I’ve not addressed other important issues which have a major impact on wine including things like Black Lives Matter and #metoo. However, a friend passed on to me a link to an essay by another blogger about the role of women in the wine industry. It takes a bit of time to read but is a heartfelt response to five years of pursuing a dream of working with wine while having to deal with inappropriate and offensive men. I strongly recommend that everyone interested in wine reads it – and especially men who shouldn’t pass it by thinking it is not so relevant to them: https://bottledbliss.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/women-wine-and-the-uncomfortable-conversation-we-need-to-have/

Wine in the Time of Pestilence VIII: Champagne

[Thanks to Dr. Liz Thach MW for some of the USA information I’ve used here].

Covid-19 seems to have dealt the champagne business a severe blow.  Remember when I started blogging on the plague I said that it doesn’t change the world – it will accelerate changes that are already happening.  That too is happening I think to champagne – although many will disagree with me and say it has overturned the existing landscape.  However, let me explain what I think is happening.

Right at the beginning of the crisis it was noted that champagne sales were plummeting, although the perennially optimistic CIVC was saying that it expected an upturn before the end of the year.  Fifty percent of the wine is (still) sold in France – though the amount has been declining for the last decade but much is sold in bars and restaurants.  With these closed for around four months volume reductions of up to 70% were seen.  Meanwhile, as I’ve noted before, the English speaking world avoids anything which smacks of celebration or success during a recession and it has moved away from champagne.  By the end of May the champagne industry was suggesting a possible loss of sales of 1.7 billion euros for the year and the original hopes for a recovery in fortunes passed by.  More recently it has been suggested that they will sell 100 million fewer bottles this year than normal. The result of this was a big split within champagne.  On the one side were the large houses, already sitting on huge levels of unsold stocks and not wanting to augment them – who thus demanded a big reduction in this year’s harvest.  On the other side the growers who have much less need to sell wine but who rely primarily for their income on selling lots of grapes, and in the middle of the current crisis could not afford to lose perhaps 25% of their income or more.

Nevertheless, if you look at the recent history of champagne none of this decline is quite so revolutionary.  For seven years, from 2001 to 2008 the business was on a roll – continuing the fairly continuous rapid growth seen for the region’s wines for the previous 50 years – as the table below shows.  I remember, in May 2008, hearing a leading member of the CIVC pronouncing publicly that champagne had ‘learnt how to beat the cycle of booms and downturns’.  If only! I assume he was eating his words six months later.

Table courtesy of Dr David Menival

The global financial crisis prompted – naturally – a downturn, with a sales loss of almost 15%.  Yet a few years later the business seemed to be bouncing back, so that by 2011 over one half of that loss had been clawed back.  However, it wasn’t as good as it seemed – as the graphic below shows.  What could be seen as a growing market up to 2011 turns into a stagnant market from 2009 to the present, and despite a good year for the value of sales in 2019, even before Covid-19 arrived this stagnation wasn’t really changing.

What does this mean?  The champenois have been concerned from some time about the threat of sparkling wines from other parts of the world; I think that is too simplistic a view.  My interpretation is that the reason for this longer term stagnation has complex origins, some of them quite long term.  The rise of ‘lifestyle’ rather than social class as one significant marker of identity means that the old obvious signifiers of the community you belonged to, based on a traditional hierarchical symbolism of the things we use, is breaking down; champagne, once the symbol par excellence of the French bourgeoisie and the British aristocracy has less cachet than before and less use as a means of conveying who you feel you are.  Add to that the fact that a new generation of consumers is much less likely to swallow marketing hype (and thus the assumption that ‘champagne is naturally the best because we all say it is’) and you have a tendency to move away from the fizz.  This was reinforced by the instant response of the champagne industry to the economic crisis of 2008, which was to reduce prices to push up sales.  That’s great in the short term, but in the longer term, with some champagne priced a little more than a good crémant from Alsace, or a better Spanish Cava, subliminally it suggested that it wasn’t such a special drink as all that.  Finally, over the last five or ten years, a more general move to nationalism and national introversion (think Trump, Putin and Brexit) and consumers are again moving away from the luxury drink from another country.

Yet, as always with wine, there are exceptions to this.  Blips for some of the summer in Britain and Norway. Most interesting is the USA.  Sales were stagnant there at the beginning of the year – yet astonishingly, whilst they have collapsed elsewhere in the English-speaking world, they have been rising in the United States.  At the end of July Nielsen, the data tracking organisation, claimed that champagne sales had risen 65% since May.  This is an astonishing turn around – so why has it happened?  Nielsen themselves found it hard to explain to us.  There was general comment about the warmer weather, people coming out of lockdown, and doing more gardening – as well as the popularity of ‘quarantini’ cocktails!  Hardly responsible, I’d say, for such a big growth in an expensive drink.  If anyone has any suggestions I’d love to hear  them.

Paradoxically, as I’ve also noted previously, outside the USA other forms of sparkling wine have seen sales behave more buoyantly.  Maybe this is, partly, due to the success of champagne producers in separating their wine from other forms of fizz.  Champagne has been marketed for over a century as the wine for celebration, success and seduction; all other wines with a sparkle – prosecco, cava, Tasmanian, even English – are for having a good time with friends or family.  In lockdown, and even more as lockdown eases it’s the latter which benefit – we want to be sociable again; however, we have nothing to celebrate, there is no success yet, so champagne is not appropriate.  Perhaps more than any other part of the world of wine champagne must be hanging out for a vaccine, and the wild parties which will inevitably follow.  Maybe that, too, will enable them to transcend not just the current crisis but also the longer-term stagnation.

Wine in the Time of Pestilence VII – Wine Distribution

The wine industry is not, of course, alone in the havoc Covid-19 has wreaked on it.  All businesses (except maybe those producing face masks and – at least early on – toilet rolls) have suffered, and wine is low down to list of priority industries for the general health of the world.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, enterprising producers have been working to find ways to get their wines direct to consumers – but the distribution industry generally has been thrown into turmoil by the crisis.  Harpers – a UK wine trade magazine – ran an article suggesting that the wine economy would take five years to rebound from the chaos.  Yet, as I’ve said in all my posts, the disease has not created new problems for the wine distributors; rather it has just accelerated the speed of changes already taking place.  Further, these changes develop in the context of the specific cultures where wine is sold.

The hospitality sector is clearly going to contract.  In some countries bars and restaurants are reopening, but social distancing means that they can accept fewer customers so their income will decline.  In France I’ve already noticed a number of restaurants that have just failed to reopen as lockdown is ending.  One issue here is the cultural insistence that meals only happen between midday and 2 p.m. and then after 7 p.m. at night.  If they could bring themselves to accept that some people at least (if only summer tourists from other countries) would like the chance to eat a bit earlier, have a late lunch, or graze all day they might do more business.  In other countries the decline of the town centre in the face of online shopping and rents that go up in the face of that decline has already been putting many restaurants out of business.  Meanwhile, as Robert Joseph has noted, if work patterns change (at least in Western countries) so that more people work more often at home that may put further restaurants in the centre of major cities under pressure.  Additionally, as the same perceptive critic notes, if there is a decline in restaurants, where consumers get to meet new wines introduced by sommeliers, what does that mean for producers in places such as Georgia, Sicily, or Carnuntum?  The key question is – how is the on-trade for wine going to be recreated over the next decade?

Getting wine to consumers – particularly under the influence of Amazon and similar wine-focused organisations like Naked Wines – was already evolving, and this has now accelerated.  In early June Amazon announced an ‘online wine store’ in Australia; meanwhile, according to Reuters Naked Wines has just stated that their June sales saw a 67% increase on the same month in 2019.  Low overheads reduce costs (and thus the price of the wine) and rapid delivery increases consumer convenience.  They may not squeeze out all the independent retailers but they could put pressure on larger suppliers (especially those who are already going online).  Again, there are cultural issues at play.  In Australia, as in much of Western Europe, online purchasing of wine is still really in early stages; however, in China, with the rise of behemoths like Alibaba, the population has already accustomed itself to making purchases online.  Yet China itself is proving paradoxical here.  Even before the disease hit there in January imports of wine in to the country were declining in both volume and value.  According to one of my correspondents there, based on the General Administration of Customs of China the value of year on year imports of wine in to the country decreased in five of the last six months of the year.  Why is this?  No doubt the trade war with the USA has caused some price rises, and beyond that perhaps dissuading Chinese consumers from buy wines made by allies of the States.  Perhaps there is a partisan move to drinking more of its home-produced wines (which are steadily improving in quality).  However, what then followed –a year-on-year decline in import volume for the first three months of the year of 25.3% and in value of 31.1% just reinforced that.  Subsequent political events will be doing nothing to reverse that process.  Politics trumps the need for wine here.

I’ve always argued that the problem with selling wine online is that the physical interaction with the product (most obviously the taste and smell) limits how much it can be sold virtually; however, that is to ignore the fact that so many (especially younger) people now make their purchase decisions based not on taste but on recommendation by influencers and the online communities to which they belong.  Meanwhile in the US online sales of alcohol doubled in the year to May and the UK showed a 50% growth over the same period.  What is more, it seems that over the time since the crisis began consumers have been maintaining their move towards online alcohol shopping so it is probably likely to be continued when (if) the pandemic disappears.

Meanwhile, two countries present particularly interesting case studies about the effect of the crisis on wine distribution – both of them with an element of ‘prohibition’ in their cultural make up.  In the wake of the end of prohibition in the USA in 1932 strict rules were introduced to manage how alcohol got to the consumer and (in part) to make it more expensive: this is the notorious three-tier system.  In each state there must be one ‘importer’, a separate wholesaler, and a third retailer direct to the consumer.  This gives big power to the large-scale distributors (who are reluctant to see the system change as it guarantees them an income but it is not popular with wine producers, who may not be able to sell wine directly interstate, nor with consumers who see three layers of distribution each taking their own cut (and thus pushing up prices) and who are limited in their ability to buy direct from producers.  Additionally, those who seek new ways of getting wine to consumers (such as Amazon) may find the system works against them.  A debate has developed on how the world of wine may change – but the power of the anti-alcohol lobby remains substantial, and is allied in this case to alcohol distributors with a vested interest in the status quo. 

Finally, spare a thought for poor South African drinkers.  As I noted before, in the early stages of the pandemic not just sales, but even the movement of alcohol was banned (thus essentially stopping exports).  That was eased at the beginning of June – but the restrictions have just been reintroduced.  This produced a brilliantly articulate groan of agony from one of the country’s leading wine journalists, Michael Fridjhon. While he acknowledges that wine causes all kinds of problems for some segments of the local population, notably more alienated groups with less access to power or wealth, all this is doing is stymieing that part of the nation’s economic recovery based on wine exports.  Further, it is entirely undermining the attempts to rescue the hospitality sector.  Fridjhon points out that the majority of the ANC’s leadership is officially in favour of prohibition (which has, of course, never succeeded in any other country).  Additionally, I’d suggest, with wine specifically there is also the point that it was traditionally a white economic activity, and remains dominated by whites.  Beyond that, as well, it is a business that is almost entirely based in the Western Cape– the one Province in South Africa which has a non-ANC government, and which the ruling party therefore detests as it threatens its monopoly on power.  Politics beats wine again…