The Growing French Crisis in Their Vineyards

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GrapevineIn last week’s column, we explored the changing alcohol consumption patterns in the United States among our demographic generations. From baby boomers to Generations X, Y (millennials) and Z, distinct preferences have emerged dependent on economic, lifestyle and ideological viewpoints, including evolving philosophic approaches to living in the 21st century.

Thinking I had covered this phenomenon thoroughly, I began exploring a theme for this week’s column when I stumbled on two additional aspects of it for which I could focus. First, it’s not solely the United States where this phenomenon is occurring and second, government intervention in that country is addressing the economic and financial repercussions of this trend.

So where is my focus this week? France.

The impact of changing alcohol preferences in the United States pales in comparison to that in France, most notably in the wine-producing sector.

On the surface, the French wine industry is thriving. Wine exports to the United States are flourishing as 1) value-seeking Americans have recently found budget-priced Bordeaux wines and 2) collectors have invested heavily in high-end bottlings. However, domestic wine sales in France have been plummeting for several years, reaching a low-point in the last three years and pummeling winemakers across the country.

This French phenomenon has caused grave financial problems for French winemakers, especially in the Bordeaux region.

Consider this: French wine consumption per capita in the 1950s was about 3.5 bottles, or 18 glasses, of wine per week. Astounding as it may seem, by 2021 consumption dropped by over 70 percent, to five glasses. (By comparison, average United States consumption has consistently been much less, about 1.5 glasses per week.) Of note, in France, red wine consumption, particularly among millennials, has declined by 32 percent in just the last 10 years.

The cause? As in the United States, alcohol preferences are shifting to beer and spirits, compounded by the no- and low-alcohol movement’s foothold in beverage consumption among younger generations. So much for the esteemed Mediterranean diet.

Throughout this sea change in consumption, wine production remained stable (notwithstanding periodic negative climate impacts). The Bordeaux region has felt the brunt of this market decline. For several years, winery inventories of red wine have ballooned, as the industry assumed demand to return to historic levels.

This year has brought to a head this dichotomy of consistent supply in the face of reduced demand. But relief is on the way. The French government has announced a program to shore up the crisis. And it’s quite aggressive.

  1. Excess wine inventory? Subsidies of $1.7 billion are available for winemakers to sell up to 66 million gallons of excess wine (equivalent to 330 million bottles; yes, 330 with an m) for distillation into industrial alcohol, for use by the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.
  2. Excess, overplanted vineyards? Bordeaux growers have suffered numerous calamities in recent years, including devastating frost, hail and generally rising temperatures, as well as rising vineyard costs and global supply chain impacts. The aforementioned drop in demand was the mightiest blow of all.

The solution to this seemingly permanent problem? A seemingly unthinkable solution. This past December, Bordeaux winemakers descended on Paris to demonstrate for government support to rip out grapevines, to be replanted with more sustainable crops. And the country’s wine regulatory bureau endorsed this request. The demand was very specific: to uproot nearly 25,000 acres, nearly 10 percent of all existing vineyard plantings in Bordeaux. This could end generations of winemaking traditions in parts of the region and potentially eliminate tens of thousands of jobs.

Have the French adequately addressed their wine industry problems? As the United States’ wine industry is currently grappling with means to sustain domestic wine consumption, are similar outcomes possible? Do these historic downward-spiraling trends in French drinking habits portend the same for American wine consumption? The future vitality, even viability, of each nation’s wine culture and economy may be at stake.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and Program Director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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