Why the French are drinking less wine
"They order this matter," said Lawrence Sterne, at the beginning of his 18th-century Sentimental Journey, "better in France". When it comes to wine, they now order it much less frequently. Not long ago, we were promised that the apparent immunity of the French to heart disease was due to regular consumption of red wine. That was then.
Now, France's consumption of its elixir of longevity has fallen from almost seven billion bottles a year in 1980 to little more than half that. On average, a French adult is said to consume no more than a bottle a week.
The young drink less wine and, it is said, attach less significance to convivial rituals. The jeune cadre dynamique (fast-lane young executive) relies on le fast food. Even at weekends, large family gatherings are less common; so are large families. In addition, France has many fewer cafes and bars. It is no longer an easy routine for the working man to take his breakfast in a glass at the zinc-surfaced bar on the corner.
What's more, new draconian laws about drinking and driving are being enforced with unsmiling efficiency. It took a decade to break the French habit of drinking several bottles of wine with dinner and then hoping that oncoming motorists would - as they always used to - flash their headlights to warn of the flics lying in ambush up ahead, but sobriety is here to stay.
When we first came to France, in the early 1950s, the wine-waiter, in his leather apron, and draped with his chain of office, was an intimidating figure in any good restaurant. It required courage to opt for a half-pitcher of the house red, before closing the wine-list with decisive aplomb and handing it up to the looming cave-man.
Last night, while dining at our favourite restaurant here in the Perigord, the Petit Paris in Daglan, I asked the patron, Sylvain Guilbot, whether it was true that the French were drinking less wine. It was, he said. Then why were the prices even of local wines now so much higher?
Our meal - carpaccio de foie gras, followed by a thick slice of braised beef topped with a generous wedge of foie gras frais and rounded off with a deep dish of chocolate mousse with home-made ice cream - still costs less than 30 euros. Yet a bottle of Chateau Tiregand, from the worthy but scarcely noble adjacent wine-growing district of Pecharmant, now costs 43 euros.
What explained the inflated price of a product for which there was less demand? M. Guilbot had a prompt, terse answer: "La Chine."
Prosperity has turned the Chinese into regular and - among the increasingly numerous elite - demanding wine-bibbers. The best French wines are status symbols on Beijing and Shanghai tables. Chinese demand for the best vintages has pushed up the price of other wines which, until recently, were never expected to travel further than local tables.
A few weeks ago, an insider tells me, a Japanese retailer included a modest second-growth Bordeaux in a Tokyo tasting. A few days later, the chateau received 800 emailed orders, for previous and coming vintages. If he had honoured them, no one in France would have been able to drink the label in the foreseeable future. It is no wonder that the best French wine is no longer for drinking; it's for buying and selling.
Should I be ashamed to admit that the flambee des prix has turned me into something of a miser? Our cellar is only modestly stocked, but there are a few cases of yesterday's wine which it has been our pleasure to share with the happy few who find the way to our table. Now, I have to confess, the closer the guests come, the more I think three times about whether they are really worth one of my waning supply of bottles from the bon vieux temps when Chateau Latour could be had for, yes, pounds 20 a case.
Among our prized possessions are two bottles of - wait for it (but never imagine you're going to get it) - Mouton Rothschild 1945, the greatest year of one of the Medoc's greatest wines. They were given to us, as the 1960s began swinging, by the late Victor Brusa. His White Elephant Club was the prime showbiz watering hole of the time. Strangely enough, I have never found quite the right occasion to open them. Such bottles could realise thousands at auction. It's tempting, but here's the kicker: only one of those dusty beauties sports its original label. The second has lost its proof of origin. As a result, it is, I suspect, of no cash value, even though what it contains is just as rare and - we hope - delicious.
The difference between the value of my two darlings points up the downside of the upward rush of prices: the pleasure which used to lie in savouring a cherished bottle has been replaced by the temptation to gloat over what we might have to pay for it today. Wine has become a commodity for hedge-funders: its future is less on the table, more on the market.
It's sad, but un peu vrai - a bit true - that the rising market is taking the pleasure out of a bottle as it tempts us, for investment purposes, to keep the cork in it. The only good news is that the quality of less glamorous vintages has increased. We have been happy to discover Chateau des Eyssards, a full-bodied, red Bergerac which is not yet a favoured accompaniment of Singapore noodles or a hedge against the dwindling pound.