Is French wine the greatest in the world?

Once upon a time, France was the undisputed monarch of the wine world. Today, its vineyard area is shrinking, and vignerons are retiring. Felicity Carter listens to two experts speaking about the state of French wine today.
 

American writer Jon Bonné and British writer Andrew Jefford
American writer Jon Bonné and British writer Andrew Jefford

A century ago, the words “wine” and “French” were largely synonymous, with a few exceptions made for classics like Tokay, Port and German hock.

Today, things look very different.

While the top wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy break auction records, and Champagne remains the global standard for sparkling wine, other French wines now compete with international rivals. France’s vineyard area is shrinking, as its aging vignerons, ready to retire, discover their children don’t want the backbreaking (and often unprofitable) work of tending to grapes. 

Where, then, is French wine today? Is France the standard to which everyone else aspires – or just one more winemaking country among many?

For Andrew Jefford, wine writer and Decanter columnist, the answer is clear. “With the greatest respect to Italy and to Spain and to every other wine-making nation,” he said. “Nowhere else on earth can quite match France in terms of fine wine quality and diversity.” 

The case for France

Jefford was the keynote speaker at the Vancouver Wine Festival in February, whose theme country was France. He made a powerful argument that French wine remains the ne plus ultra of the wine world – because of its flaws, not in spite of them.

“If you want to make great wine, what we call ‘France’ is the luckiest land mass on earth,” he told the audience. “It is the only major wine-producing nation on earth which covers both propitious cool-climate, high-latitude zones and warmer-climate, mid-latitude zones.”

Italy and Spain are mid-latitude, Germany is high latitude, and the southern hemisphere’s high latitude zones are storm-swept and harsh, he said. While North America’s east coast may have the right latitude, it doesn’t enjoy the benefits of the Gulf Stream as much as France does.

“There is no land mass which has the positional advantages of France, sitting astride latitude 47N in a temperate maritime zone,” Jefford went on. “It’s also, geologically speaking, a relatively young place,” with vast chalk and limestone deposits, and alkaline soils. “It also means propitiously youthful land forces, with a profusion of hill slopes and gravel terraces,” all of which are relished by vines. And then there are France’s cool, dry winds.

French wines, Jefford continued, are as much about nurture as nature. “The French capacity for complaining, moaning and disputing is almost limitless,” he said. “There are many negatives to this, as any French politician or business leader will tell you. But if you want to make great wine, this is a very good thing.” 

Jefford said the way discontent had driven incremental progress over 1,000 years has “brought us today’s Musigny, Yquem, Morgon and Madiran. France’s intricate wine offer isn’t just due to terroir; it’s also the fruit of divine dissatisfaction.”

The French have two other key attributes. The first is that they “honour difference. Most French winemakers, even at the grandest addresses, are fundamentally modest. They know they are there to serve the place,” said Jefford. “The only question is what the place most wants to do or to give. The focus is always on origin, not the market.”

The French also taste well. “Most people truly care about food and flavour in France. They value and reward subtlety of aroma and flavour,” he said. “Palates come into being within cultures. I now believe these different sensual cultures are of great consequence to wine creation.”

Far from static

Jefford was not the only French wine lover speaking at the festival – so was American writer Jon Bonné, whose magisterial new book The New French Wine is due to be released this year. 

The book is the result of gruelling research trips to France that Bonné took between 2015 and 2019, where he drove long distances, took down stories and tasted lots of wine. He started his odyssey better prepared than most – from an early age, Bonné was sipping the French and Californian wines his chef father brought to the dinner table. Today, Bonné is a notable American wine writer, and author of The New California Wine (2013). 

Bonné told Meininger's that he hopes his new book will overturn the idea that French wine is “an unwavering north star. Until the turn of the millennium almost, the power of French wine was built entirely on this creation myth that presumed things were unchanging.”

What Bonné discovered on his travels was how in flux French wine really is. That, indeed, it’s coming to the end of a long, transformative arc. “This is the first time that France has been able to define its wine industry outside of the destruction of phylloxera,” he said. “Thinking about how almost everything that happened to French wine in the 20th century – that includes hybrids, the creation of the appellation contrôlée, the defining of terroir – were really born out of the devastation of phylloxera. In a very base way, the appellations were a way to get past the fraud that came because people were so desperate to rebuild the wine industry.”

That wine lovers can now drink unadulterated Burgundy, or enjoy the quality revolution taking place in Beaujolais, are signs of that healing. “Beaujolais had a thriving, enormous trade in the late 19th century,” he said. “The idea of it as being this peasant wine that is somehow now being anointed for the first time is just not true. It had an extraordinary reputation before phylloxera.”

Bonné doesn’t worry about the loss of vineyard area. “I think that’s a good thing, because there’s more focus on quality, and the French are increasingly leaving the prospect of really cheap wine up to other producers.”

Final verdict

What does Bonné, the author of a classic work on California, think of the idea that French wine is the best in the world?

“French wines have the potential to be the greatest in the world, and what that means is that, at their very best, they are the reference points,” he said. “You will struggle to find a more epic example of Pinot Noir than Romanée-Conti, you will struggle to find a better reference for Syrah than Hermitage, or Cabernet-based wines that are better than the best wines of Pauillac.”

That does not, however, excuse the fact that “over time the French have alternated between enormous progress and extreme laziness.”

Bonné added that the one country that could challenge France would be Italy, “but what it tends to lack is the will and organisation.” In the end, “others may rise up to find their own identity, but the ruler we will be using is still a French one.” 

Or, as Jefford said at the conclusion of his keynote speech, the French may not be perfect, “but they do justice to their land and in that sense, they act as a model and inspiration for those who craft wines everywhere around the world.”

Felicity Carter

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