Spitting in the Soup

Seven Truths About French Wine 

French wine has a special status - but not perhaps for the reasons the French think. We look at the legends of French viticulture and uncover the truths behind them, including systematic fraud and chronic alcoholism. 

1. The French Invented Wine

“Only France”, said Alexandre Dumas, famous novelist and drunk, “could have the genius to create wine.” It hadn’t and didn’t. Scientists from the University Museum, Pennsylvania have identified wine residue in ancient pottery jars excavated at Hajji Firuz Tepe in Iran’s Zagros Mountains date back to the Neolithic (5400-5000 BC) period. The first known reference to a specific vintage occurs in the diaries of Pliny the Elder who rated 121 BC as a vintage “of the highest excellence” in Italy’. Wine was introduced into France as the beverage of choice of its new Roman overlords after Julius Caesar’s invasion of 58 BC. 

2. France Makes The Best Wine

Not if you go by taste (and what else would you go by? Its radioactive weight?). The world woke up to this truth after an incident still rocking the world of wine – “the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976”. Parisian wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, organised a prestige “blind” tasting before a jury of nine tasters consisting of the crème de la crème of France's wine snobs. To their horror, they found that they had rated Californian wines as winners in both the red and white wine categories. One judge demanded her ballot back and, when she didn’t get it, refused to speak to Spurrier again. The French wine industry banned him from the nation's famous wine-tasting tours – with one famous producer accusing him of “spitting in our soup”. The French press first denied any tasting had happened and then implied that Spurrier had fixed the results It was all too late, the story was around the world that wines from other countries were the equal and often better than France’s most famous wines. The story dramatically encouraged wine production in the US, Australia and South America.

3. France Has The World’s Most Successful Wine Industry

In 2011, despite still being the biggest global wine producer, France has fallen to Number 3 in the Export List. Behind Italy and Spain now, Australia and Chile are hard on its heels. Pinochet Noire anyone?

4. France Offers The Most Diverse Range of Wines In The World

True, but that doesn’t mean all or even most are any good. Bordeaux alone has over nine thousand different châteaux labels (which i8s odd, since the French Ministry of Culture lists only 158 actual chateaus in the region). Of these, there are 14 châteaux labels with "Belair", 22 with "Corton" and 151 châteaux with "Figeac" in their names. This proliferation is down to the official French classification system which labels a wine by its location as opposed to its grape (as is done in most of the world). The regional committees of the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, the system that is supposed to guarantee wine quality, are packed with local winegrowers who rarely fail to approve each others’ wines (and thus become eligible for state and European Union funding). In 1995, the then head of the AOC himself protested that many of the wines being passed for consumption were ’scandalously bad’, not unexpected since the committees pass 98% of all local wines put before them

5. You Can Trust French Wines

No you can’t. French vintners have a long and rich tradition of wine fraud. Veteran journalist and France-watcher, Jonathan Fenby ,mentions “the many real or apocryphal stories... about tanker lorries filled with cheap southern (or North African) plonk turning up in Beaujolais and Burgundy to add strength to the produce of up-market vineyards in thin years.” The French wine anti-fraud squad employs only 45 inspectors and they only catch the tip of the iceberg. In 1973, Henri Cruse, a reputable wine shipper for centuries, was caught blending Spanish Rioja wine into Bordeaux. His company was bankrupted by the €6 million ($8 million) fine. More recently, Jacques Hemmer, a Bordeaux négoçiant, was caught blending cheap wines from southern France into 4,000 hectolitres of much more expensive Bordeaux. He was fined a million euros in 2002. and served a year-and-a-half jail sentence.

6. Because the French Drink Wine, They Suffer Less Drink-Related Illnesses

Untrue. French commentators like to point at American dopeheads or English and Dutch soccer hooligans befuddled with beer, when discussing substance abuse. Because wine is the “totem drink” (in the words of Roland Barthes, ever ready with nonsensical terminology) of France, its people drink far more wisely and suffer fewer effects. In fact, the French consume more alcohol (the equivalent of 10.91 litres of pure alcohol a year) than anyone in the world except the Mexicans.. In 2005, Hervé Chabalier, a journalist and former alcoholic, was commissioned to write a report, “Alcoholism - The Simple Truth” for the French Health Ministry. He found that alcohol was directly responsible for 23,000 deaths a year in France, and indirectly responsible for a further 22,000. “A third of all custodial sentences in this country, half of all domestic violence, a third of all handicaps are due to alcohol”, he says. “One French person in 10 is ill as a result of alcohol, and every day five French people die after an accident linked to alcohol.” He also found that 5 million drink too much (2-3 units of alcohol per day), and 2 million French people are dependent on alcohol (over 5 units per day). 

7. The French Really Know Wine

Not true – what they do know is how to talk about wine. The entire language and terminology of wine “appreciation” was invented by the French and then adopted wholesale by wine snobs the world over. Whereas the ordinary tippler only tastes slightly watery alcohol with a wood-ish afterburn (that comes from the barrel), the wine connoisseur speaks of “tones” and “hues”; he or she looks for “opalescence”; they discuss its “angularity” and whether it has “bigness”. This jargon is designed only to disguise the basic fact that it’s all a matter of opinion and that, as a recent experiment showed, even French wine experts can be very wrong indeed. In 2001, French researcher Frédéric Brochet asked 57 of Bordeaux’s greatest wine experts to a red wine tasting. Among the reds was one bottle of white wine, to which he'd added a flavourless red dye. Not one of the experts noticed. He then asked them to taste two bottles of Bordeaux, one fancily-labelled as a grand cru and the other clearly marked as a ho-hum vin de table. In fact, the same wine was in both bottles. But the experts gushed over the "grand cru" and dismissed the "vin de table" as weak. His conclusion: “People talk a lot of garbage about wine and we French are the worst.”


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