The French have a drink problem – they’re not glugging back their national tipple in the way they used to.
The latest surveys show that the numbers of wine-drinkers in France is declining at a rate that is alarming vineyard owners and supporters of the traditional way of life in the country.
In 1980, about half the French population drank wine almost every day. That figure has slumped to 17% now. At the same time, the number of people who never touch the stuff has doubled to 38%.
Some might say that the 1965 figure of average wine consumption showed a nation of excessive boozers, with 160 litres going down the hatch every year. But now that figure will soon drop below 30 litres if the trend continues, which is likely.
It has emerged that French society’s attitude to wine has changed radically through the generations. Those now in old age grew up with wine as a part of everyday life, always present on the table. The middle-aged still drink wine, but see it as a treat, spending more on average than their parents on a bottle of wine, but not drinking it with every meal. The young generally shun wine, only starting to sip in their mid to late twenties.
Cultural commentators have pointed out that the once sacred French values of respect for tradition, conviviality and the appreciation of the finer things in life are in mortal danger.
Journalist Périco Lagasse is adamant. “Wine should not be a trophy product that we roll out to celebrate the grand occasions or to show off our social status. It is a drink intended to accompany the meal and provide a complement to whatever is on our plate,” he says. “Wine has gone from being popular to being elitist.”
If you go back in time, you will find that elitism in wine is nothing new. Although drinking (very weak) wine was widespread in areas with vineyards simply because it was safer than water, the working class didn’t get truly hooked on the stuff until the First World War saw men in the trenches stiffening their courage with huge quantities of pinard a very cheap and rather nasty wine.
After the war, previously wine-free areas such as Brittany, Normandy and Picardy saw a boom in the bar à vin, and the wine-drinking habit became universal until the rot started to set in the Sixties.
The main factors contributing to the decline in wine drinking are:
More people work in offices and forswear wine at lunchtime for fear of nodding off in the afternoon.
Mushrooming car ownership and the alcohol control it implies.
A rise in popularity of beers and mixers, particularly among the young.
A rising Muslim population.
Denis Saverot, editor of the magazine La Revue du Vin de France, becomes heated as he gives his view of where the blame lies for the decline in wine.
"It is our bourgeois, technocratic elite with their campaigns against drink-driving and alcoholism, lumping wine in with every other type of alcohol, even though it should be regarded as totally different," he says.
"Recently I heard one senior health official saying that wine causes cancer 'from the very first glass'. That coming from a Frenchman. I was flabbergasted. In cahoots with the health lobby and the politically correct, our elites prefer to keep the country on chemical anti-depressants and wean us off wine.
"Just look at the figures. In the 1960s, we were drinking 160 litres each a year and weren't taking any pills. Today we consume 80 million packets of anti-depressants, and wine sales are collapsing. Wine is the subtlest, most civilised, most noble of anti-depressants. But look at our villages. The village bar has gone, replaced by a pharmacy."
In the view of this militant wine-lover, the country is following the undrunk wine down the drain.