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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 May 2006, 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK
The taste of French patriotism
Tim Franks
Tim Franks
Europe Correspondent, Newsnight

Pouring wine

May sees the thirtieth anniversary of 'the Judgment of Paris' - when some of France's best wine tasters preferred American vintages in a blind taste test. Tim Franks examines how the scandal became an emblem and even a reason for France's current obsession with "economic patriotism".

Jean-Luc Thunevin is looking with despair at a vast bucket crammed with empty wine bottles, inside the cellar of his chateau. It's the first day of the most important week in Bordeaux - the week when the buyers and the critics first taste the previous year's vintage.

Thunevin's grief is that each bottle could fetch up to several hundred pounds a go. But this wine he has handed out for free.

And what's more, as he points out, in his pointedly earthy fashion, the invited cognoscenti didn't even swallow. They spat it out, given that they taste as many as three hundred wines in a day.

Just in case my French isn't up to it, Jean-Luc Thunevin underlines the ghastliness of the waste, by miming coitus interruptus.

Polarised

But Thunevin's trauma is skin-deep. He knows this is a small price in the roaring success that he's scored as one of the new-wave Bordeaux wine-makers.

Not everyone's delighted. His wines, at Chateau Valandraud, have polarised opinion.

And the reason for that can be traced back, down a thin and crooked line, to an event that took place several hundred miles to the north, in Paris, in May 1976.

Blind tasting

At that time, a 34-year old Englishman, called Steven Spurrier, owned a wine shop in Paris. He'd been impressed by some young Californian wine he'd tried.

White and red wine
French critics have run out of superlatives for the 2005 vintages
He organised a blind tasting, at the Hotel Incontinental. Nine of France's most august wine experts were invited.

Against some of the most revered names in French wine - Mouton-Rothschild, Latour, Haut-Brion - stood some Californian parvenus. And it was they, the American wines, which were rated top - first in the white, then in the red. Disbelief preceded shock preceded horror.

In Paris, Newsnight reunited Steven Spurrier with two of the French judges. (Some have since died; one politely says that he still finds it too painful to discuss in public.)

They said that the unforeseen, but entirely positive effect of "the Judgment of Paris" was to shake a vast swathe of the French wine establishment out of its torpor, and to encourage replication of the sort of technological advances that New World wine had championed.

Restrictive rules

But they also conceded that at the time, they were met mainly by howls of disgust and cries of treachery.

For Nicolas Baverez, an economist and author of books such as "la France qui tombe", wine in the 1970s is a good example of what he sees as the current French malaise.

The problem with French wine is its complexity. It's a matter of culture, which is always elitist
Bernard Carayon MP
Yes, France can be enormously successful in what it produces; but at the same time, he says, it refuses to acknowledge the challenge of international competition, and it adheres to outmoded, restrictive national rules.

He warns that failure to deal with this by the presidential election of next year could spark, in his words, "a new French civil war".

There's no such concern on the brow of the cigarette-smoking, moped-riding politician who first proposed "economic patriotism" three years ago. Bernard Carayon is the MP for the governing UMP tapped by successive Prime Ministers to promote the cause.

He makes the point that a greater proportion of the French stockmarket is in the hands of foreign investors than most of the world's other big exchanges. And he insists that globalisation should not mean harmonisation.

Elitist

Indeed, the problem is not so much of supply as consumption. "Exports tumble, yes, because foreign wine is cheaper," he says, but also "because the consumer is not trained to recognise quality wines. The problem with French wine is its complexity. An Australian or a Texan cannot distinguish between a Loire wine and a Bourgogne. A Texan cannot know French literature, Flaubert. It's a matter of culture, which is always elitist."

It's precisely that belief that's animated much of the argument among the wine-makers in Bordeaux.

Many of the traditionalists see the newcomers, such as Jean-Luc Thunevin, as producing wine that's not identifiably French. Rather that they appeal to the American and East Asian vogue for big, intense, powerhouse bottles.

Where there is agreement, this year, is over the general quality of the 2005 vintage.

Wine critics, known for the lavishness of their language, have been running dry on superlatives.

The disunity lies in the broader debate over France's place in the world. Resolution may have to wait until the 2007 presidential election is, at last, uncorked.


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