Consumption of wine in France continues to decline. From its peak at well over 100 litres per capita several generations ago, consumption now stands at less than half of that amount. Add to it the changing lifestyle, economic situation and the Loi Evin, a law passed in France in 1991 to restrict alcohol and tobacco advertising, and a generation of French in their 20s and 30s may opt for beer or no alcohol at all. Drink-driving laws are strict and widely enforced, so long meals over many bottles of wine are a thing of the past.
In Paris, where I have spent the past six weeks, alongside fast food and gourmet burgers - all the rage right now - are many new wine bars, which seem incongruous with the current trend. Many tiny wine bars, such as the popular Le Garde Robe in the first arrondissement, are so small that a group of 12 people would fill them.
Paris has always had excellent bars such as Willi's Wine Bar, established more than 30 years ago. However, a new breed of wine bars has recently emerged. Ambassade de Bourgogne, as the name implies, serves a good selection of wine from Burgundy at reasonable prices in the trendy sixth arrondissement. The selection of wines is focused and accompanied by a simple menu that includes charcuterie and cheese plates.
Modern bars offer different choices. While many seem to focus on specific criteria such as natural or organic wines, others offer a huge range of wines by the glass. Wine by One's list of 100 such wines is staggering and would have been unimaginable decades ago before the new technology of wine preservation (the enomatic system). Another popular wine bar is O Chateau, where the focus is on education. It offers wine classes and seminars daily in English or French and serves 40 wines by the glass.
Many natural wine bars have cropped up over the past decade, and the focus is on serving mostly organic, biodynamic and vins naturels, wine made without sulphur and from grapes grown without chemicals. Racines is a very popular natural wine bar that takes food equally seriously with options that range from seasonal specialities to cheese platters. It has two branches in Paris. Other such bars include Frenchies and Vivant.
Not everyone is convinced about the merits of natural wines. Enrico Bernardo, named the best sommelier in the world in 2004, opened his restaurant Il Vino in 2007. He says: 'Over the past two to three years, natural and bio wines have been popular. It is due to many reasons, including environmental awareness and a desire to be closer to producers of both food and wine. However, I have had many bad experiences where natural wines were oxidative and had ... unpleasant aromas. In a Michelin-star restaurant, I had five glasses of undrinkable vins naturels.'
Robert Vifian is the chef-owner of Tan Dinh, a Vietnamese restaurant with an amazing wine list. Having been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years and seeing trends come and go, Vifian agrees with Bernardo that natural wines are now on the wane. 'Vins naturels are not necessary good or even better than traditionally made wines. There is a lot of bottle variation.'
Bernardo's Il Vino is a playful reversal of traditional menus - as a diner, one selects the wine first then dishes are recommended by the chef. Customers know that they are in such good hands that 70 per cent choose the blind tasting degustation menu at Euro150 (HK$1,440) - five wines are served blind alongside two appetisers, a main dish, cheese and dessert. Despite wine being 'the protagonist' at Il Vino, the food is so good that the restaurant earned a Michelin star very soon after opening.
Speaking with Bernardo, one can see a glimpse of a wine revival in France, which partly explains the growing number of wine bars throughout Paris. Bernardo says: 'In my 13 years of working in Paris, I have never seen so many people interested in wine and the evolution of wine in this way. Seven or eight years ago, I was seeing mostly mature, older people ordering and drinking wine. Now the younger generation is curious, and they are more open to trying and drinking wines.
'Ten years ago, there was one person who was talking about wine, and now it is everyone at the table is engaged with wine. Before, people were more intimidated; now that is no longer the case.'
Another trend that Bernardo sees is the move away from Grand Cru Bordeaux. 'People are now more open to trying foreign wines, especially the younger generation,' Bernardo says. He has seen a growing interest in German riesling, Italian and Portuguese wines in the past two years. The bottles that are most sought after are the small production, artisanal wines that offer quality at reasonable prices.
The figures reflecting declining wine consumption in France are a superficial, macro view, while the reality, according to many wine professionals, is quite different. Most are optimistic that the tide is turning in their favour.