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At the heart of the enormous boom in wine consumption that has taken place in the English-speaking world over the last two decades or so is a fascinating, happy paradox. In the days when wine was exclusively the preserve of a narrow cultural elite, bought either a auctions or from gentleman wine merchants in wing collars and bow-ties, to be stored in rambling cellars and decanted to order by one’s butler, the ordinary drinker didn’t get a look-in. Wine was considered a highly technical subject, in which anybody without the necessary ability could only fall flat on his or her face in embarrassment. It was not just that you needed a refined aesthetic sensibility for the stuff if it wasn’t to be hopelessly wasted on you. It required an intimate knowledge of what came from where, and what it was supposed to taste like.

Those were times, however, when wine appreciation essentially meant a familiarity with the great French classics, with perhaps a smattering of other wines-like sherry and port. That was what the wine trade dealt in. These days, wine is bought daily in supermarkets and high-street chains to be consumed that evening, hardly anybody has a cellar to store it in and most don’t even possess a decanter. Above all, the wines of literally dozens of countries are available in our market. When a supermarket offers its customers a couple of fruity little numbers from Brazil, we scarcely raise an eyebrow.

It seems, in other words, that the commercial jungle that wine has now become has not in slightest deterred people from plunging adventurously into the thickets in order to taste and see. Consumers are no longer intimidated by the thought od needing to know their Pouilly-Fume from their Pouilly-Fuisse, just at the very moment when there is more to know than ever before.

The reason for this new mood of confidence is not hard to find. It is on every wine label from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States: the name of the grape from which wine is made. At one time that might have sounded like a fairly technical approach in itself. Why should native English-speakers know what Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay were? The answer lies in the popularity that wines made from those grape varieties now enjoy. Consumers effectively recognize them as brand names, and have acquired a basic lexicon of wine that can serve them even when confronted with those Brazilian upstarts.

In the wine heartlands of France, they are cared to death of that trend – not because they think their wine isn’t as good as the best from California or South Australia (what French winemaker will ever admit that?) but because they don’t traditionally call their wines Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. They call them Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou or Corton-Charlemagne, and they aren’t about to change. Some areas, in the middle of southern France, have now produced a generation of growers using the varietal names on their labels and are tempting consumers back to French wine. It will be an uphill struggle, but there is probably no other way if France is to avoid simply becoming a specialty source of old-fashioned wines for old-fashioned connoisseurs.

Wine consumption was also given a significant boost in the early $1990$s by the work of Dr. Serge Renaud, who has spent many years investigating the reasons for the uncannily low incidence of coronary heart disease in the south of France. One of his major findings is that the fat-derived cholesterol that builds up in the arteries and can eventually lead to heart trouble, can be dispersed  by the tannins in wine. Tannin is derived from the skins of grapes, and is therefore present in higher levels in red wines, because they have to be infused with their skins to attain the red colour. That news caused a huge upsurge in red wine consumption in the Unites States. It has not been accorded the prominence it deserved in the UK, largely because the medical profession still sees all alchocol as a menace to health, and is constantly calling for it to be made prohibitively expensive. Certainly, the manufacturers of anticoagulant drugs might have something to lose if we all got the message that we would do just as well by our hearts by taking half a bottle of red wine every day!

The development which has created fear among winemakers in the wine heartlands of France is the

1. tendency not to name wines after the grape varieties that are used in the wines
2. ‘education’ that consumers have derived from wine labels from English-speaking countries
3. new generation of local winegrowers who use labels that show names of grape varieties
4. ability of consumers to understand a wine’s qualities when confronted with “Brazilian upstarts”.