Is France losing its wine culture?

Enjoying a bottle of wine over lunch used to be as much a part of life in France as Citroëns and berets. But in just two generations France has seen its wine culture quickly erode. The number of bistros that once served leisurely lunches is diminishing each year because fewer French are taking the time to stop and enjoy the custom. (And those who do tend to be in the senior portion of the population.)

The annual consumption of wine in France has dropped from seven billion to four billion bottles annually over the past 50 years. Today just 16.5 per cent of the French population are regular wine drinkers and most of these are over 40 years of age (according to research from the ESC Pau research centre and Toulouse 1 Capitole University).

You don’t need statistics to comprehend the disintegration of wine culture however. Just walk into a bistro and see for yourself. I travel to France every year and each time I see fewer and fewer people sharing a bottle of wine for lunch. Some of this is likely due to new stricter drinking and driving laws (i.e. the same .05 blood alcohol limit that Albertans are now subjected to). But it seems there is more at play than that and much of it is generational.

Young people in France are citizens of the world — they eat at McDonald’s and are just as likely to down a Red Bull as a glass of wine. It’s a sad reality for a country so renowned for its celebration of all things delicious.

The lack of consumption is evident in the restaurant wine lists. Today you have to search long and hard for restaurants that take wine seriously. Most don’t even bother to post the vintage or even the producer on their tragically short selections a sure indication that people no longer care about the details. You’re more likely to find a good wine list at a restaurant in Calgary than in Paris.

As the rest of the world’s interest in wine is peaking oddly the French seem to be turning their back on it. Most wine is now sold in French grocery stores at less than three euros a bottle. I know what you’re thinking: “you can get great wine for cheap in France right?”

Wrong.

In France just like everywhere else it costs over a euro to put wine in a bottle (caps corks labels etc.) and when you add in the mark-up you are looking at a wine that costs just a few cents to produce. In other words about as bad a bottle as you could find — most wouldn’t even survive the boat trip to Canada. Even the English spend more on average on a bottle of wine and they are notoriously cheap. The average bottle of wine sold in the U.K. is now about four euros and rising.

The French still produce much of the world’s great wine but more and more of it is being sold abroad. The connoisseurship of wine seems to be shifting away from France and towards North America where people who care passionately about wine are growing in numbers. If the current trend continues in just another generation France will no longer be the place to go to for food and wine. What a sad thought. We can only hope that the young French discover a new passion for their wine culture before it’s too late and we all lose out.

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