10 Feb 2013
Wine and the French
Everyone knows that wine is very important to the French. Not only as a valuable industry in its production and sale worldwide, but in its consumption: the French drink 47 litres per year each on average, compared with 20 litres in the UK. Just how deeply embedded wine is in all aspects of life is shown in all sorts of ways that are surprising to people from other countries. A meal without wine in France is almost unthinkable, a social gathering without wine is not social, and a visit to a friend or acquaintance will always start with a glass or two wine.
My house insurance - a normal, everyday policy – includes under its list of things covered automatically votre vin (your wine) to a value of 1782 euros, because most people will have a stock of wine in their cellar or shed or a back room.
Every year in January the mayor of every commune holds a public meeting, to wish everyone a happy new year, and to report on what happened in the previous year. In our little commune of 260 people, over 80 turn up for the meeting, which takes place in the Salle des Fêtes, the meeting room used for everything from grand meals, private receptions, clubs and societies, arts and exercise. After his speech, champagne is served. Similarly, after the Remembrance Day ceremony, and any other public events, there is a vin d'amitié (wine of friendship) afterwards. The cost of these wines comes from the local funds, and the electorate consider it an essential use of taxpayer money. Any chance of the same thing happening in the UK?
The famous Relais Routiers – restaurants with enormous carparks for lorry drivers throughout France - provide three or four course fixed price lunches for around 8-12 euros. This usually includes a quarter of a litre of wine (or in Normandy cider as well). When I first started coming to France in the 1970s, at a time when British food was at its worst but Elizabeth David was having a big effect, the RR were a revelation. Interesting, varied high quality food, and nothing fried in grease. They are still enormously good value. In towns, where there is no space for lorry parks, many small cafe/bar/bistros/brasseries/restaurants offer a Menu Ouvrier (workman's meal), essentially the same concept of at least three courses, usually wine included, for the same sort of prices. Often the wine is in opened bottles on each table, and you help yourself to what you want.
Wine buying is an everyday process, for everybody. Supermarkets have extensive wine sections , often with wines at several hundred euros a bottle, as well as cheap everyday quaffing wines. In October, most supermarkets and wine merchants have Foires au Vins (wine fairs) where they have a huge range of wines in six or twelve bottle cartons at good prices. This is because the wine producers have to find room for the new wine from this year's grape harvest, so sell off existing stock that is left or reaching the point where it is about to pass its prime. Many excellent bargains to be had, but you have to go quickly because all the best wines and best deals sell out very rapidly: every French person knows a lot about wine.
In common with many traditional farmers in Normandy, which of course has no wine production, a friend of ours buys his wine direct from a producer in Bordeaux. Once a year a tanker turns up, and runs a hose into one of his outbuildings where a couple of barrels are filled with the current year's wine. This is drawn off into bottles as needed, and is not at all bad.
Another local family has its next generation producing wine in the Loire region, and each year they come to the village and provide a buffet meal and wine for all comers, in that village's Salle des Fêtes, with of course dégustation (tasting) of the currently available wines. A lot of people turn up, and many order cases for delivery later. The wines are very palatable and good value.
To look at some more figures is informative. The British consumption of actual alcohol is virtually the same as France, 13.37 as opposed to 13.67; alcoholism rates are virtually identical. The key difference is that the French virtually always drink with food, even if it is just nibbles with a glass of white at 6.00pm with a friend, and drink small amounts each time, whereas the British seem to drink to for its own sake or simply to get drunk.
Another set of interesting numbers: the USA average wine consumption is only 7 litres per year, but they consume 216 litres of soft drinks like colas. This undoubtedly explains their social problems and the bad tempered aggressiveness that is so prevalent. It certainly can be no coincidence that their obesity rate is 30% compared with France at 9%.