One of the most poignant moments in Sideways, Alexander Payne's Oscar-nominated film about a wine geek's mid-life crisis, takes places in a burger bar. Miles, the movie's balding, fortysomething anti-hero has fled his best friend's wedding after bumping into his ex-wife. Alone and miserable, he finds solace in a bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc, sipped surreptitiously from a plastic cup.
The choice of bottle is significant. The 1961Cheval Blanc is a remarkable Saint Emilion, and for Miles it represents something very special. He has cherished the bottle for years, stroking its label in anticipation of its many complexities.
The scene wouldn't be as touching if Miles were drinking a bottle of Merlot or California Blush. At his lowest ebb, Miles turns to a bottle of claret.
To the filmgoer, the message is clear: France makes the world's most memorable fine wines. Miles is not alone in revering what is produced on the other side of the Channel. France would take at least half the spots in any oenophile's list of the 50 greatest wines. To drink something from Gérard Chave, Domaine Leflaive, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau d'Yquem or the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can still be a transcendent experience.
Such wines represent a tiny proportion of what France produces, however. Demand for the top names may be as strong as ever, but the rest of the French wine industry is doing rather less well. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that French wine generally is mired in the merde. The talk in France is of a crisis to rival the devastation caused by phylloxera, a root-munching aphid that wiped out most of the country's vineyards in the second half of the 19th century.
Many French appellations, from Madiran to Mcon, Beaujolais to Bordeaux, are finding it increasingly difficult to sell their products. Earlier this week, the French wine industry decided on a desperate short-term remedy: the mass distillation of 250 million litres of wine, 80 per cent of it from appellations contrôlées, supposedly the top tier of French production. No doubt much of the cost will be borne by the EU and the French government, but that's almost beside the point. The damage to France's sense of self-worth will be huge.
When phylloxera struck, the French had only themselves to blame, having imported infected vines from the United States. But this time, they are blaming someone, or rather something else. The New World, particularly Australia, is the current object of Gallic opprobrium. 'How can we compete with the Coca-colonisation of the world of wine?' one exasperated winemaker asked me. 'What Australia makes is closer to fruit juice than wine. Its wines have no soul.'
To dismiss Australia as a producer of 'industrial wines', a favourite French insult, is ludicrous and self-deluding. Good, bad and indifferent wines are made everywhere these days. Despite what the French claim, the best Australian wines reflect the place where they were grown just as faithfully as anything made in Bordeaux or Burgundy. The same goes for the top wines of New Zealand, California, South Africa and Chile, not to mention Spain, Italy and Germany. Terroir, a word that could be translated as a sense of place, is not exclusively a French preserve.
Australia has come a long way since it was mocked in a famous Monty Python sketch as the land of Sydney Syrup, Chateau Chunder and Côtes de Rod Laver. It now has a greater share of the UK market than France (20.2 per cent against 17.8 per cent) and produces most of the top 10 wine brands, including Jacob's Creek, Hardys, Lindemans, Banrock Station, Wolf Blass, Penfolds and Rosemount.
It may be leading the New World charge, but Australia is flanked by South Africa, Chile and the United States, all of whom are taking sales from France and the rest of Europe. Last year, for the first time, more than half of the 101 million cases we drank in this country came from the New World. Some retailers are predicting that, if the current trend continues, the figure could be as high as 70 per cent by 2010.
The wine world has arguably changed faster in the past 20 years than at any point in its history. Most of this has been for the better, with the emphasis on wines that are easier to drink and to understand. Varietal labelling, in particular, has been a huge success. In Sideways, Miles talks about grapes most of the time, rather than appellations or individual wineries. The use of words like Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon has done a lot to demystify the subject.
France has found it difficult to keep up with the change to simpler, mass-produced wines styles. It is stuck with restrictive laws that govern which grape varieties can be grown where and a fragmented production base. It also has few large producers who can meet the demands of the supermarkets who, for better or worse, sell more than 70 per cent of the wine we drink. There are exceptions, particularly in vins de pays areas, where can-do New World attitudes are more common, but the sad truth is that too many French wines are made without the consumer in mind.
French legislation is too complex for most modern wine drinkers. Most consumers don't know the difference between a Pouilly-Fuissé and a Pouilly-Fumé and care even less. They want wines that are colourfully packaged, fruity and reliable. Sometimes, the results aren't exactly delicious: the best-selling imported wines in the UK and the US, Blossom Hill (from California) and Yellow Tail (from Australia) respectively, are low on personality and high on residual sugar. But that's what punters want.
Is there a way back for France? I certainly hope so. But France has to change the way it sells and markets its wines in the £4 to £8 sector. In the modern world, relying on tradition and complexity is like trying to perform Allegri's Miserere in a tornado. In its every-day wines, France has to shout as loudly as its rivals, producing the sort of things that can compete with Yellow Tail, Kumala and E&J Gallo. I never thought I'd say this, but maybe it needs a few more wines like Piat d'Or. One thing is for certain: it cannot survive on wines like Chateau Cheval Blanc, however memorable they may be.