The fall of France

12 December 2013

3:00 PM

12 December 2013

3:00 PM

Our sweet enemy, France, is not always that sweet. It is tempting to respond to France’s current degringolade with cynicism and indeed schadenfreude. For a start, it should keep down prices: even claret prices. There are reports that £80 million worth of serious claret is on the high seas, returning from China. Ordered, it was never paid for. The négociants of Bordeaux were already coping with two disappointing vintages — 2011 and 2012 — plus one unspeakable one. 2013 is by all accounts the worst year since at least 1973. Various houses will not declare a vintage. Only the boldest or most foolhardy will be buying en primeur.

That said, a few years ago I drank a ’73 Latour en magnum. The bottle had come straight from the château, so had been well cared for. It was fine, but that is Latour: incapable of making a bad wine, even in the worst years. It will be interesting to see what it does with its 2013s.

Funny to think back: in 1963, the Pearsons bought Latour for £650,000. There was a marvellous man called Alan Hare, who had a formidable war in SOE and SIS. He was part of that group and era — Julian Amery, David Smiley and others — who did their best to obey Churchill’s injunction: ‘Set Europe ablaze.’ In later life, they all knew how to enjoy themselves, and had earned the right to do so.

Not just under fire. In late 1943,  after the Italian surrender, David Smiley was in Albania. For weeks, he had been living on dried donkey of a poor vintage. He came across a group of Eyeties — now our allies, as it were — who were cooking what smelt like a delicious stew. It was excellent. Thanking his hosts, he congratulated them on making donkey so palatable. ‘Oh, that wasn’t donkey. That was poor old Beppe. It was a kindness, really. He wasn’t going to last much longer.’ Col Smiley could never decide whether they had been pulling his leg. But it did not taste like donkey, and every other edible four-legged animal had long since been scoffed.

After the war, Alan Hare worked for Pearson, ending as chairman of the FT. He had plenty of plans for his retirement, but the reigning Pearson, his voice carefully in neutral, said: ‘Alan, are you absolutely set on leaving, because there is a little job that needs urgent attention.’ Alan tried to think of any bit of the empire that was crisis-ridden, failed, was minded to stick to his plans and soldier no more — until: ‘We need someone to run Latour.’

So he did, but in the late 1980s, the Pearsons sold it to Allied Lyons. ‘How could you have done that?’ I asked. The reply was stoical. ‘You are a quoted company. You are offered 102 times earnings for a subsidiary which is marginal to the main business. At the next AGM, how would you explain your refusal to sell?’ The price was £110 million: not bad for a margin, and a few years later, Allied Lyons sold it on at a loss. That would make a saint feel schadenfreude.

To turn from saints, special forces and spies to less worthy characters, it will be interesting to see how Bordeaux copes with its current difficulties. As the word ‘rapacious’ is wholly inadequate to describe the négociants’ commercial morals, there will not be a wave of global sympathy. Everyone is hoping that in order to rescue some cash flow, they will have to cut prices. Inshallah.

The sympathy is reserved for the Burgundians, who are becoming a victim of their own success. Over the centuries, the vineyards of Burgundy have changed ownership. The dukes and the rest of the high nobility gradually lost their holdings, many of which were acquired by the great abbeys. After the revolution, while Bordeaux remained aristocratic, much of Burgundy was taken over by peasant proprietors. For decades, they made the same wines in the same way: some outstanding, others merely good; quite a number, poor. There was also adulteration, though many of those ingenious products were excellent.

Then everything changed. Sons went off to university and came back as vignerons. Higher prices provided cash for investment — and, for once, the EU helped. Regulations were imposed. If the wine claimed to be pinot noir, that is what it must be. There were protests. Pinot noir was said to be too truculent, too feminine (sounds like a tautology). The protests were unavailing, and the new vignerons mastered their tautological grapes. Quality improved, prices rose, the rich landscape of Burgundy — ducal Burgundy, vignoble Burgundy — enjoyed the benison of success.

That is now threatened by the clod-hopping boot of French officialdom. Admittedly, the greatest threat is not new. The Code Napoleon prohibits primogeniture and forces French landowners to subdivide their estates. In Burgundy, holdings are already small, but they have also grown hugely valuable. So Père Goriot dies, leaving what the grenouilles call ten hectares: about 25 acres. There are four children (the decline of infant mortality has sharpened the guillotine of the Code Napoleon). Only one is interested in wine. The others want the cash, and those 25 acres could be worth at least €50 million. The oenologue brother is in no position to buy out his siblings. There are reports that rich Chinese are ready to invest, and that the odd oligarch is sniffing around.

How has the Hollande government responded? By levying a wealth tax. It is now possible to answer the question which Chou En-Lai ducked. The French revolution was a bad idea. Since 1789, France has rarely been well-governed. The restored Bourbons were not as bad as history portrayed them and Louis-Philippe was better than might have been expected from the son of a regicide. But the poison of Bonapartism infected the French bloodstream until Napoleon le Petit’s failure: ‘Sedan exorcised Austerlitz’ — discuss.

In Burgundy, a way of life is under threat. The locals ought to join forces with the Bretons and impose sense on Paris.

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