Formidable! Like sun-baked vines, international wines are beginning to spread through French restaurants and wine stores with slow and steady, but unmistakable, persistence. The French are zealously uncorking bottles of California chardonnay, Australian shiraz, South African pinotage and Argentinian malbec (there’s a Julia Child–approved grammatical reason these particular wines are written in lower case, by the way). Until recently, French pride in winemaking made the appearance of non-European wines on supermarket shelves or wine lists a notable aberration.
According to Gabrielle Vizzavona, a French wine specialist who writes for the Paris-based newspaper Le Figaro, millennials have something to do with it. “[They] are more open to international wine, more curious, and have better access to information through the internet, especially social networks,” she says. “We basically moved from a world in which the consumer was a spectator to one in which they want to be an actor.” She adds: “From ego-driven consumption to a curiosity-driven one.” Touché.
The other night, a friend and I drove 20 minutes to the remote Bordeaux countryside town of Civrac-de-Blaye (population 850) to sit in the shade of a garden tree at Phileas Fogg restaurant (named after a book character invented by French author Jules Verne). The brief wine list included not only Sauvignon Blanc wines from the the nearby Pessac-Leognan wine region, but Cabernet Sauvignon from California's Sonoma Valley as well as Carmenere from Chile. A few years ago, this inclusion would have been regarded by locals as bizarre at best, and sacrilege at worst. But that era has passed.
The one-year-old, architecturally impressive Cité du Vin museum in Bordeaux is entirely dedicated to wine and echoes this appreciation. Within this $92 million structure—designed to help lure visitors to the city—interactive sensory and audio-visual exhibits focus not only on labels from French wine regions such as the Médoc, the Loire Valley, or the Burgundian Côte-d’Or, but on international wines as well. The museum's restaurant—Le 7—features wines from 24 countries, including a Tunisian Merlot and a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. “It’s very curious. This has changed enormously in the past three, four years,” said Jimi Hwang, the restaurant's sommelier. “People are now searching for international wines from Argentina, Chile, and the United States. They also search for really good Italian and Spanish wines.” This phenomenon applies to wine lists at smaller bistros, too. “Some smaller gastronomic restaurants may have 40% of international wines now,” Hwang adds. “People say, ‘why not?’ They are open. You also see more international wine imports at the big supermarkets.”
The difference between sourcing your wine from a supermarket or a wine store in France parallels the practice in the U.S., with bottles of price and pedigree coming from specialist wine stores, and bargain table wines from hypermarket shelves. Generally, the bigger the supermarket, the greater the range of prices and quality. But unlike in the U.S., even in the bigger cities, you can find wines of good quality for less than $10 in France, and get excellent (though unrenowned) bottles for between $20 and $50.
Also trending on the French wine scene are organic and biodynamic wines. The production of these wines has increased between 10% and 20% for each of the past 10 years within France. This June, the massive wine market Vinexpo—attracting some 50,000 visitors to Bordeaux—features a special center dedicated to organic and biodynamic wines.
‘Natural,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘biodynamic’ all refer to wines produced from vines in which few (or no) herbicides or pesticides are added, but organic and biodynamic are certified by different international organizations. Whereas natural and organic wines are loosely defined, biodynamic wines are more strictly controlled: The application of any synthetic chemicals on vines, or the inclusion of almost any additives, is strictly forbidden.
I spoke with American author Lindsey Tramuta, a resident of Paris for ten years. In her recently published book The New Paris, she writes: “Almost no buzzy new restaurant opening occurs in east Paris without an accompanying natural wine list….If Parisians are actively seeking out natural wines today, it’s for the same reasons they’ve flocked to greengrocers stocked with kale and rare grains, vegan cafés, and market-driven restaurants: They want to have more control over what they’re consuming.” Vizzavona agrees: “Younger generations today eat better and exercise; they value ethics when buying a product. Organic is the type of viticulture that seduces them the most.”
“People are getting bored of materialism and supermarket food,” Sommelier Frédéric Lignon said, the owner of Vercoquin, a wine store and bar in the city of Lyon. The store sells only organic and biodynamic wines, typically to customers aged between 25 and 45. He noted that, in the past two years, many Michelin-starred restaurants have begun including a page dedicated to organics on their wine list. “The middle class in Paris and Lyon has a little more financial power now to eat well and drink well. That’s why they buy organic wine,” he added.
This recent French embracement of more international and organic wines does not necessarily apply to the combination of both. Lignon and his professional friends consider organic wines from South Africa, New Zealand, the U.S., and Australia to be excellent. “But the price is too high,” he said. “The French do not yet trust these international organic wines to pay this price.”
Though interest in wines from other counties is definitely on the rise, when faced with a choice between two wines at the same cost—one French and the other international—Lignon believes his fellow citizens would choose the one from their country. “You know,” he laughed, “the French are very proud of themselves.”
For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.