Purely in the interests of journalistic enquiry, you understand, these words are being written in the congenial company of a bottle of wine: specifically, a bottle of the 2020 Beaujolais Nouveau, which hit the shelves last week. I would appreciate it if you made due allowance across the course of what follows in matters of grammar, spelling, syntax or logic.
It tastes just fine to me; though even my dim palate, raddled by decades of devotion to the native spirits of my homeland, can tell that a red Burgundy is better with a little maturity behind it. Still, hats off to the marketing élan which, nearly 40 years ago, came up with the wheeze of hyping the arrival of the first Beaujolais of the vintage, and has shipped millions of gallons of the stuff around the world every November since. It is only stretching truth a short way to suggest that the ploy helped save the French wine industry, which had grown overpriced, over-snooty and complacent, and had failed to anticipate the massive upsurge in the popularity of less pretentious but perfectly drinkable wines from other warm countries around the world.
The French, whose palates are more discerning than everyone else's and who wouldn't dream of admitting it even if they weren't, insist that 2020 is an exceptionally fine vintage. All the elemental alchemy of rain and sunshine and gentle breezes came together as it does only once or twice a decade to produce, not just in Burgundy, wines of exceptional merit. The Nouveau sold out quickly in our local vintners (wine shops were, of course, deemed 'essential suppliers' for the latest lockdown, and kept open: vive la France!). The enthusiasts are enthusing, and talking of laying 2020s down for posterity. I did say that it tasted fine to me.
But it is here that the first in a series of cruel ironies kicks in. Though this year's Nouveau has been well received, it seems unlikely to ship in anything like its usual volumes. The customary community festivals, fairs and fêtes at which people come together in the hundreds to chug the new vintage in a carefree ambience of chargrilled food, wheezy accordions and good company were comprehensively banjoed by the pandemic. Some vineyards have organised their own socially-distanced tastings, drive-through sales, and online ordering for home delivery. No matter how bewitching the stuff caressing the larynx may be, it just isn't the same thing at all.
Pity the poor vignerons. They struggled this year just to prune and harvest their vines, given Covid's disruption to the movements and accommodation needs of the migrant workers on whom the industry relies. Now they find demand dislocated, prices limp, and their usual routes to market blocked. Promotional articles, as optimistic as they are entrepreneurial, insist that this year's Nouveau will be perfect to adorn the Christmas or New Year table – occasions when drinking older wines is traditional. Recipes are being dreamed up for dishes especially 'suited' to the 2020 Nouveau. It is brave, but a little forlorn.
Wine sales have hit the skids in France this year in a big way. The small glass with lunch or supper is deeply enough engrained in French habit to keep basic table wines ticking over, but nobody's been able, or inclined, to do much partying in 2020. Personal observation also suggests that some restaurants, toiling for viability after spells of curfew or lockdown, have hiked wine prices up to keep the price of their food enticingly low. Bargain set menus were everywhere this year, but often accompanied by a larcenous wine list.
Nowhere has a dour national mood impacted more harshly on sales than in the limestone region around Reims that bears one of the world's most coveted brandnames: Champagne. The French drink the beloved bubbles the same way as everybody else: as an expression of celebration. There has been precious little to celebrate in 2020, and few opportunities to celebrate it in company.
As if coronavirus were not toxic enough, there was also Donald Trump, imposing 100% tariffs – worth $2.4bn – on French luxury products, most notably Champagne, along with French cheeses, porcelain, enamel cookware and handbags. The sanction, a retaliation for French efforts to squeeze a little revenue out of tax-dodging internet corporations through a digital services tax, comes on top of Trump's 25% tariffs on imports, including wine, from the EU in general, imposed in the long-running row over aircraft-building subsidies.
Faced with these pressures, the Comité Champagne, representing the region's growers and wine-making 'houses', took the 'historic' step of capping production for 2020 at 8,000kg of grapes per hectare. This compares with output of 10,200 kg/ha last year and 10,800 in 2018. Nothing of the sort has been done since the global financial crash 12 years ago.
The decision exposed – though they were hardly a secret – tensions between 'houses' and the growers, who sell either to them or to co-operatives. The growers, many of whom are individuals or families investing the wisdom of generations in small patches of vineyard, wanted a more generous cap. The houses, eager to protect prices of the finished product, wanted even limits, to 6-7,000 kg/ha. The houses account for 70% of sales, but own only 10% of wine-growing land.
The same pressures apply equally to other wine regions, and to other European producers. The Spanish Government has told producers to dump surplus output, in return for a €92m package of aid. Producers of Tuscany's magnificent Brunello di Montalcino have agreed to cut output by an eighth.
Economically, the impact will be severe. Wine is second only to aerospace in French export earnings, worth more than €8bn in an average year, plus half as much again if you include wine-derived spirits like Cognac. The industry supports 600,000 jobs but, more importantly, it is simply fundamental to the French idea of France. The generations of inherited expertise, the great vistas of vines sustaining a rural France profonde that would otherwise have emptied decades ago, the unique terroir of soil and sun and craft, the vocation of making a product that you believe to be the best in the world.
It also comes on top of long structural decline. Market rationalisation, recession and the lure of the cities had already cut the number of producers registering harvests from 144,500 in 2008 to 76,200 in 2018. Great and lesser wines suffered alike. Aquitaine, which includes Bordeaux, lost more than half its producers in that period: down here in less illustrious Languedoc, we lost 40%.
One last irony. Vines don't stop making grapes when demand for wine falls. To see those grapes put to anything other than their intended use breaks the vigneron's heart. But he also needs an income.
The €330m of pandemic aid allocated to the industry by Prime Minister Jean Castex is largely in the form of a grant, at €78 per 100 litres, to distil surplus wine into industrial alcohol: much of which is currently being turned into antiseptic hand gel… demand for which, this year, is positively booming.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster