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La France Va Mal - The Cult Phenomenum

‘La France va mal’. Having lived here for 30 years it’s a perennial cry. France is sick! Looking across the Channel at the ongoing collapse of just about everything, I’m not so sure, but what is certain is that ‘la France viticole’ is facing an unusual trio of challenges. And it’s not doing well.

The first is global, unavoidable and seemingly intractable – global warming. Even if you take out the penchant for riper, softer, sweeter, crowd-pleasing wines amongst many (US) critics, alcohol levels are rising and partly it’s due to the temperatures. Talk to winemakers anywhere and they are all desperately trying to work out how they can continue to grow their current indigenous grapes in their vineyards in 20 or 30 years’ time. Already in Bordeaux they are allowing the experimental plantation of not just non-Bordelais grapes, but foreign ones. Touriga nacional in your grand cru Pauillac anyone? Of course, some would say that ‘plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose’ as the current triopoly of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc was not the standard grape variety mix centuries ago. Malbec, the ‘black wine’ of Cahors was often used in high percentage, and appreciated, perhaps to beef up the colour of ‘clairet’ as what we might now call ‘claret’ looked more like modern day rose back then.

But that’s not my subject today.

If you look at challenge number two, it’s the market. In Bordeaux they are ripping up 10,000 hectares of vines. When we drove recently through Entre Deux Mers, a vast expanse of unfashionable, flat vineyards stretching in every direction squeezed between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, we were shocked by the number of abandoned ones. There’d be rows and rows of neatly trained, cultivated vines, and then just a field of mess, vines untouched, untrained, unpruned, unweeded, racked by disease and left to Nature. It’s illegal (as they act as vectors of disease to neighbouring vineyards) but the owners can’t sell the wine or afford to look after the vines, so they are simply left untended, eventually to be ripped out. A sorry sight.

This year the expectation is that France will overtake Italy as the world’s biggest wine producer, with 44.5 million hectolitres, and yet the amount of red wine bought in France has dropped by 38% in the last 5 years and the TikTok generation is simply not interested. Bordeaux, and red wine in general, is seen as fusty, snobby, boring and something for old men in oak panelled clubs. In response they have created the new Vin de France appellation, to compete with the freedom of the rest of the world and throw off the restrictive chains of the AC Controlled Appellation rules on grape varieties, yields, alcohol levels, treatments etc. Under the VdF banner you can grow what you like where you like and mix it all up. Hence, horror of horrors, we find rose in tin cans to drink by the pool with ice cubes and chardonnay to mix in your cocktails. Cognac is going the same way and trying to grab the youth’s attention as a cool, trendy mixer. To get the twenty somethings to buy wine, you need to attract them and make the product look cool. Nobody is going to bother to learn the hundreds of different climats in Burgundy, and no one cares. Fancy a Sauvignon Special? Here you go: 2/3 sauvignon blanc, 1/3 tonic with a dash of cucumber syrup. Shaken or stirred?

Yes, la France va mal. Too much wine produced and too few drinkers, and I haven’t even mentioned the problems of sustainability - all those superstar cuvees with ridiculously heavy glass bottles plus the spraying of many non-organic vineyards with unhealthy synthetic chemicals. Vines are wilting in the heat and desperate for water, but irrigation is illegal and would be impractical in most places anyway and let’s face it, there is a major shortage of water already. And to top it off, bizarrely, successive French governments have actively banned any form of advertising of alcohol under the Loi Evin and do everything they can to stress (exaggerate?) the health risks of a glass of good red… And when the President recently served King Charles III the 2004 Mouton-Rothschild (for which he was the artist), some people had an envious, anti-elitist fit.

And yet, and yet in this seemingly miserable environment for the poor, much put upon winemaker, we have a new phenomenon, something that has burst upon us this century, and is particularly ironic in a country that considers wine to be part of its very culture and where the battle between the haves and the have nots is endless and permanently in your face.

Because in the French wine world the gap between the average struggling winemaker and the stars is getting ever, ever wider. In fact, you cannot imagine how wide.

Welcome to the ugly new trend of cult wine, split into two facets, the cult winemaker first and foremost, but also the cult vineyard, happily feeding off the French obsession with, and marketing of, their sacred terroir.

It’s gone mad. And it’s hugely negative and, sadly, probably irreversible. Supply and demand facilitated by the internet and fuelled by social media.

I guess it started in Napa with the hyping of local multi-million-dollar wineries. Back here, of course, there have always been top vineyards and top domaines. Chateau Haut Brion has been selling world famous wine for over 4 centuries, and the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (in various historical manifestations) for even longer. The hill of Hermitage was famed at the French royal court and so on, but the point is that these were simply the top wines and, for the most part, were expensive but not out of sight. Yes, ok, the Romanee-Conti itself was always for the very rich only, but their other ‘lesser’ grand cru cuvees you genuinely could afford if you were moderately well off and saved up. I know this as I bought the Echezeaux as a Christmas present for my father when I first started work and was earning a pittance. Ditto Chateaux Haut Brion, Margaux and Yquem. I guess Petrus might be the first ‘cult’ wine on this side of the Atlantic, funny as Pomerol a few decades ago was pretty much forgotten and unheard of, but it’s more recently that the disease has spread rampantly. The ‘garagistes’ of the 1990s, trendy winemakers on the right bank of Bordeaux (St Emilion) who made ultra oaky, extracted, over-ripe wines mainly for the American palate and superstar scores, have largely (happily) faded away or morphed into a more reasonable, less exaggerated phase.

Looking at inflation this century, your 100 euros in 2000 would now be worth about 150. As for your 1e cru Bordeaux chateaux, in 2005 they tripled the price, and the rot began, so that the Haut Brion that cost 125 euros in 2004 was 500+ by 2019. And Cheval Blanc probably 600+. Not a bad increase in returns. A lot of people could, at a stretch, afford 125 euros 15 years ago, but few would fork out 100 euros per glass today… and hence the French irony – that part of their ‘patrimoine’ becomes inaccessible to all but the ultra-rich. That does not sit well with the French social model (and nor should it). Hence the jeering at Macron, ‘president of the rich’ and his Mouton-Rothschild.

But in Bordeaux today it has a lot to do with large corporate-owned chateaux, egos and slick marketing, always with an eye to the income statement. (And in my opinion, this helped start the disaffection with Bordeaux from younger generations). Still, corporate greed and bombastic architecture aside, the supply of wine is large, and if you sidestep the top dozen chateaux, the value proposition for most of the grand crus is still very good indeed, and increasingly unrivalled.

No, the real problem with the cultification of French wine lies elsewhere. Perhaps we should blame the Cistercian monks for supposedly delimiting the vineyards centuries ago and creating the precious patchwork quilt of small and walled vineyards that we see in Burgundy today. Chateau Lafite can buy any neighbouring domaine in Pauillac and it can automatically be added to Lafite, but not so in Burgundy. Buy the vineyard literally twenty feet from yours but in a different denomination or classification and, bad luck, you cannot incorporate it. Your grand cru stops at the wall, not a foot further. Add one drop of village wine into your grand cru and the whole cuvee is downgraded to village. It creates the perfect controlled supply for a frenzied market should the demand take off.

It also, of course, gives a perfect breeding ground for the cult vineyard. Fifty years ago, and Cros Parantoux (in Vosne Romanee) was a field of rocks, considered a bit too high up the slope above Richebourg and blasted away after the war to grow root vegetables for subsistence. Eventually Henri Jayer planted vines and originally included them in his simple village blend. Now a bottle of it would set you back a cool two to three thousand euros a bottle. Yes, thousand. And Henri Jayer has become a (sadly departed) cult winemaker whose wines (of whatever vintage or site) sell for thousands, in the plural.

Still. I think everyone would agree that Jayer was a genius winemaker, and that Cros P is in fact a very fine site and the wine memorable. Well, I suppose ‘everyone’ would not, as 99% of the wine world has never seen a bottle, let alone tasted one. I have only tasted one mouthful from cask and, yes, it did stand apart, not that I am putting in an order!

But where it has gone utterly mad is where the rules of the Burgundy rulebook, the 10 Commandments, have been thrown out of the window. Where terroir, the bed rock upon which the whole Burgundy hierarchy is built, its very raison d’etre, has been simply aside. Again, the ultimate irony in a place where terroir has been its selling card for decades, or centuries…

Probably the ultimate cult personality is an elderly, small and chic lady, a redoubtable mountaineer, famed taster and formidable personality, Madame Lalou Bize-Leroy. Her two domaines, Leroy and d’Auvenay, have rocketed beyond the stratosphere to such an extent that the wine becomes a must have luxury object to the mega wealthy and a massive ‘look at my success’ status symbol. Very far from the self-effacing vision of some humble medieval monks.

But it really is a recent phenomenon. I bought a few of her wines until 2004, all be it only the village ones and the odd lesser 1e cru from the Cote de Beaune. She is a high priestess of biodynamics, prunes back the yields to a less than bare minimum and has very specific farming practices, and, yes, from my very limited experience, her wines are remarkable, for their fragrance and florality, (partly from including stems), and their general ‘wow factor’. Whether that is totally representative of the terroir, or her extreme winemaking and farming skills, who knows and, frankly who cares, but impressive they remain.

And it was always thus. Well, since she started Domaine Leroy a little over 30 years ago. But, and this is the point, as said, I used to buy the lesser wines and I am not, and never was, a tech billionaire, nefarious criminal or investment banker. To put it in perspective, the 2003s that I bought were in the 100-150 euro range (so roughly 150-225 in today’s money). Yes, that was expensive and let’s say twice to three times the price of a ‘normal’ good village or 1e cru wine. But still possible, still within the realm of you or me. They had not yet defied gravity, even if a village wine was priced at the level of most other domain’s grand crus.

Fast forward to 2020 and I gave up. I simply could not ‘afford’ to drink them let alone buy. Well, yes, I could as I only paid that 100 euros, but the opportunity cost was too vast, the price spread too crazy. Now I could sell the Savigny les Beaune 1e Cru les Narbontants for over 2,000 euros. So, I faced a fun choice – drink the wine and think it had cost me 25 euros a glass or ruminate quietly on the fact that I could have sold it for 350 euros a glass and bought a week’s family holiday.

What would you do?

Oh, and by the way, as usual, I screwed up… On WineSearcher today the price is Euros 5,563 ex tax, ooooh, a nice six and a half thousand euros. Well, well, quadruple figures per glass. And the wine scores 91 – about the same as my 60 euro bottle of 1e cru Savigny from someone else… Okay, I find the scoring idiotic, and I am sure the wine is wonderful, but it’s not La Tache and never going to be, and yet it costs more?!

We’ve moved away from the old idea of buy a case of twelve, sell six and the other six are free. Now you struggle with your conscience even to drink one and you cannot buy six, let alone twelve. Allocations are two bottles if lucky.

And once you start… the moment that a village wine, at the bottom of the quality hierarchy pyramid, can sell for far more than most grand crus (the pinnacle), then what has happened? And of course, if you get out your cocktail shaker and chuck in both cult winemaker and cult vineyard, well, are you ready for this, the price exceeds fifty thousand euros per bottle. Yup, if you fancy her Musigny you’d best speak to your banker. Or just rob the bank instead.

Suddenly, whereas I could play on the fringes of supposed greatness 15 years ago, now I am left blasted away watching the rocket flames disappear into the high atmosphere.

The effect is to drag everything upwards. Now we have cult villages – just try to buy anything from Vosne-Romanee or Chambolle-Musigny and the vast majority of village wines hit three figures and the top crus well into four. And then comes the panic, the mad search for the next guru, the next anointed one, every wine journalist desperate to be the hero who discovers and breaks the news, investors greedily waiting on the sides, and, maybe, you and I just wondering if we could find some other good wine to drink before it too soars out of reasonability and common sense.

Take young Charles Lachaux, scion of the Arnoux-Lachaux winemaking family. It would seem he began to follow Madame Leroy’s style of vine growing (you can spot her vines, they are trellised higher and the top shoots not pruned but allowed to grow high and then looped back). Apparently, his wines were very good, and began to draw attention and ever higher critical scores.

And then what happened?

I was reading the current edition of the Revue des Vins de France magazine yesterday and I came across a letter. What caught my eye was the picture. The labels. Distinctive. The writer received 6 bottles of 2019 last year from the mother of Charles Lachaux for 380 euros. This year the offer was for 6 bottles at 1,800 euros. The client was a tad shocked by the 470% increase in a year.

We can all enter into debates about whether the winemaker deserves the profit (yes) or the middleman, speculator, investor, wine merchant (no), but that’s not really the issue here, is it?

The other day I was in a restaurant in Paris having an unusually long lunch when my host and the owner frantically beckoned me over to try something. I had already drunk a skinful and did not want more especially from a domaine I’d never heard of (Les Horees) with an odd label of a hot air balloon. But the wine was nice.

Nice. I later looked it up. New domaine, very qualified German owner who had worked with big name domaines in Burgundy. Biodynamic of course. A ‘rising star’ not to be missed. But the village Beaune that I’d just tasted and not really paid attention to? Several hundred euros…

Naturally this then pulls everything up. Other vignerons look and say, hey what about us, let’s increase a bit too. I presume that the poor recipient of the generous Lachaux offer above declined and then looked elsewhere, and so the demand shifts and builds. And soon it spreads. If Burgundy is a bust, then who are the new superstars of the Rhone, the Loire, the…?

Ah well, what do you know about distributed ledgers and cryptocurrency? Or NFTs? (No, it’s not a nasty far right political movement). Okay let me help the less techy with the Wiki definition:

‘A non-fungible token is a unique digital identifier that is recorded on a blockchain and is used to certify ownership and authenticity. It cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided. The ownership of an NFT is recorded in the blockchain and can be transferred by the owner, allowing NFTs to be sold and traded.’

For their 2020s’ the famed Vosne-Romanee estate Comte Liger-Belair decided to sell all its wines by (under, with, through?) NFTs. Ostensibly to counter forgery, the other delightful and booming byproduct of the cultification of wine. Yes, I get it for your unique, multi-million-dollar Vermeer or Van Gogh, but for a bottle of fermented grape juice?!

I gave up on top Bordeaux in 2005 and on top Burgundy a few years ago. Like many others, I searched for an alternative wine region which offered indigenous grape varieties, typicity, aromatics, history and terroir and ended up in Barolo. And for a while, tutta va bene…

And then? Someone copped on… why not ‘cultify’ some more? My Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi and Burlotto Barolo went from 60-75 euros for the 2010 to 350-500 now. Eh?? In less than a decade the retail prices went up fivefold and more. The same story: allocations to private customers shrink as the price spirals. And I was not a private customer.

Another one bites the dust. And the damage spreads… in Sancerre the retail prices of Francois Cotat’s iconic wines have tripled (though remain comparatively decent I suppose and the domaine prices are still super value). Just down the road, the cabernet francs from Saumur Champigny’s Clos Rougeard are now 300-400 euros, for Loire cabernet franc! In Chateauneuf, the Chateau Rayas I bought for 120 euros is now a simple 1,500… My favourite 50 euros Cornas (Thierry Allemand) now tops 300.

I could of course go one, but I am sure you get my drift. I shall not raise the question of what happens if one of these bottles is corked, or prematurely oxidised? In Burgundy we know that the problem of recurring dead bottles of white stretches at least into 2014 and who knows how far beyond, and yet the cult domaine prices have, guess what, gone into orbit. Your village Coche-Dury Meursault (again I paid 125 euros or so) is now over a thousand, though I’ve not heard of problems with premox, but my favourite Domaine Roulot certainly does suffer and at a mere 500 euros a pop today, well…

And as the big dollars roll in, so do the corporates. Burgundy, thanks to inheritance laws and its fragmentation/delimitation of vineyards (ie closed supply that cannot increase) is a region of smallholder families. But now nobody can afford either to inherit a vineyard or buy the smallest parcel of one next door. Hence the field is opened to, yes, the corporates. LVMH, the ultimate luxury goods producer, bought Clos des Lambrays, a good, not stellar grand cru in Morey Saint Denis which retailed for 80 euros. Today? Over 600 and rising. Nothing like good branding. I doubt the wine is 8 times better than the dusty bottles in my cellar waiting to get old enough to be opened.

It's difficult to see any reversal. It’s ever easier to buy wines online and the influencers, critics and look at me social media (self) promoters continue to pile it on. And, somewhere, someone is making a lot of money. The glorious Raveneau Chablis I still buy for a saintly 50 euros from him retails at ten times that. How is it going to stop?

As it is, the vast bottom layer of French wine production is struggling, the climate is warming and the top grand crus across the world are being dragged into a price bracket that removes any sense of value and makes them the playthings or ego symbols of the very, very wealthy – people who either have no sense of value for money, or simply don’t care or need to.

And where does that leave the rest of us? Scrambling for the crumbs and trying to convince ourselves that this mere hundred-euro bottle at the base of the pyramid is really wonderful. You could argue that it doesn’t matter, that there is plenty of good wine available in the world and of course there is. But I am talking about France here, which is where I live and is home to the highest concentration of top-quality wine in the world. And I am watching a culture slip away, or rather race away, as the youth turns off from wine and the upper levels of almost every serious wine district drift into pricing that is frankly ridiculous.

This week we tasted at one of my favourite domaines in Beaune, Domaine des Croix. David Croix is as charming and humble, ungreedy gentleman as his wines are elegant and pure. He had recently taken on a very knowledgeable young woman to help. Whilst we sniffed his delicious 2022 Corton-Charlemagne from cask (and now from glass demijohns, an experiment), she rather ruefully admitted that she couldn’t really comment on the grand cru as she could never drink it. In fact as someone passionate about Burgundy and just starting their career in Beaune, she basically couldn’t afford to rink any grand crus, anything from the Cote de Nuits or many top premier crus from the Cote de Beaune. How sad is that?

In Barolo the week before we’d met a new producer who had kindly allocated us some wine. The price in London at his UK distributor is over twice as much. Pure greed.

We really don’t go in for big ‘look at me’ sessions with an orgy of great labels, but occasionally we have a reason (& friends) to indulge. This week we had very generous friends from Cayman who arrived with a bottle of 1993 Musigny for lunch, and I produced a few choice bottles which at the time cost not that much. It was, of course, a wonderful lunch, though I do rather regret drinking so many irreplaceable bottles in one sitting as after a while the alcohol and bonhomie (not to mention those labels) begin to speak, and in many ways, I’d prefer to sit down with them one at a time to be able to really understand every nuance.

Anyway, how were they? The Raveneau Blanchots grand cru cost me 30 euros (yes, I kid you not) and now retails for 20-30 times that amount. If you appreciate Chablis, this was sweet lemons, creamy and then a Raveneau wave of oceanic minerality, call it what you will, oyster shells etc. You could not be more quintessentially top-class Chablis. But at over 100 euros a glass retail?

The famed de Vogue estate had, by reputation, a slightly off period in the 90s, even if 93 was a great Burgundy vintage, and the poor bottle had flown Cayman-London-Madrid-Paris in the fortnight before being uncorked. Even so, there was obvious grand cru density, a ton of elegance and class, and a wine that was now seamless, all softened and smoothed out, lovely. I can’t comment on whether it was a good Musigny as sadly I don’t drink enough of it to know, but it was very fine.

Interestingly, in an age when sauternes has fallen totally out of fashion and the grand crus are all growing more and more dry wine, the last wine was (as often) the one that raised the most plaudits. The few times I’ve drink Yquem I am always amazed by its balance, restraint and elegance. 1990 was a serious vintage, the colour a glorious gold, the wine still holding a tropical ripe core, but now burnished with barley sugar and caramel – again, all smoothed out, sweet but never cloying and endlessly long. The comment was ‘brilliant’ and my wife Kathy who never drinks much sauternes at the end of a long meal, quietly helped herself to a second glass and the bottle just emptied, the sign of something that good.

Which leaves the ‘ultra cult’. Yes, Madame Bize-Leroy herself, just a village appellation from the unfashionable Nuits St Georges, (no grand crus) and 2001, over 20 years old for a ‘simple’ village wine. The vineyard is on the Vosne side of the commune, so nicely placed, and cost me around a hundred euros, a lot for its status back then.

And? Well, like Musigny, I don’t drink enough of this stuff to comment much, but I have tried a good few of her village wines and I can recognise a few facets. The colour for starters – pale and bricky, even a touch cloudy, very much what would now be called gentle infusion as opposed to hefty extraction. And then the nose, that Leroy nose – hugely fragrant, floral, sweetly red fruited and sauvage. Maybe it’s the stems, maybe it’s the trellising methods, maybe it’s the vinification, but her wines are always super aromatic. The weight was village, none of the density of the Musigny, the finish getting crunchy and sugary. A delight, and a wine you just want to sniff all night.

And all came in at 13%. A while later, trying to clear the head and work off some of the food, we were ambling along in the forest with the dog and my wife asked about the price.

The last Musigny I bought was 2008 and cost 200 euros. It’s now 6 times that. The Yquem was the only wine not to have gone into the stratosphere, probably only doubling over the 30 years.

Which leaves… I got out the phone and had a look. I guessed something totally stupid, had it yet breached four figures?

Over two thousand euros. For a village wine.

Whether I staggered because of the price or the alcohol who knows. But I must say that the one wine that was still in my head, that I could taste or more to the point smell, was…

I arrived here when I was 30, earning not much but with a love for good wine and an interest in its history and its place. I landed very much on my feet; it was wonderful. Without robbing the bank, lying to my bank manager or my wife, we could look forward to the weekends and open genuinely fine bottles, with, for high days and holidays, something special. I think of how much pleasure we enjoyed, and how much we shared and spread to friends and family who joined us.

That will be impossible for our children, or at least not with even remotely the same quality of wine. That to me, in France of all countries, is a great shame and a loss of culture, a simple, lifelong joy removed.

I guess I should just bite the bullet and get used to the Chardonnay Special.

With ice cubes, bien frappe.

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