Does the seemingly perpetual decline in consumption of France’s national drink symbolise a corresponding decline in French civilization?
The question worries a lot of people – including flag-wavers for French exceptionalism – all of whom have watched with consternation the gradual disappearance of wine from the national dinner table. Recent figures merely confirm what has been observed for years, that the number of regular drinkers of wine in France is in freefall.
In 1980 more than half of adults were consuming wine on a near-daily basis. Today that figure has fallen to 17%. Meanwhile, the proportion of French people who never drink wine at all has doubled to 38%. In 1965, the amount of wine consumed per head of population was 160 litres a year. In 2010, that has fallen to 57 litres and will most likely dip to no more than 30 litres in the years ahead.
At dinner, wine is the third most popular drink after tap and bottled water. Sodas and fruit juices are catching up fast and are now just a short way behind.
According to a recent study in the International Journal of Entrepreneurship, changes in French drinking habits are clearly visible through the attitudes of successive generations. People in their 60s and 70s grew up with wine on the table at every meal. For them, wine remains an essential part of their patrimoine, or cultural heritage.
The middle generation – now in their 40s and 50s – sees wine as a more occasional indulgence. They compensate for declining consumption by spending more money. They like to think they drink less but better.
Members of the third generation – the internet generation – do not even start taking an interest in wine until their mid-to-late 20s. For them, wine is a product like any other and they need persuading that it is worth their money.
“What has happened is a progressive erosion of wine’s identity, and of its sacred and imaginary representations,” say the report’s authors, Thierry Lorey and Pascal Poutet. “Over three generations, this has led to the changes in France’s habits of consumption and the steep declines in the volume of wine that is drunk.” The fall in consumption is mirrored in other countries – such as Italy and Spain – which are also historic producers of wine. And it has not dented the prospects for exports of French wine, which continues to hold its own abroad.
But what worries people are the effects of the change on life inside France, on French civilization. They fear that time-honored French values – conviviality, tradition and appreciation of the good things in life – are on the way out. Taking their place is a utilitarian, “hygieno-moralistic” new order, cynically purveyed by an alliance of politics, media and global business.
Food writer Peter Lagasse says “The traditional family meal is withering away. Instead we have a purely technical form of nourishment, whose aim is to make sure we fuel up as effectively and as quickly as possible.” Wine drinking in France is certainly part of a long-standing way of life, but it would be wrong to suppose that the French have always drunk as much as they did, say, 50 years ago.