FRENCH WINEnthusiasts have taken quite a psychological and financial beating over recent F years. First, prices skyrocketed to absurd levels in the late '70s for all types of French wine. Then, just as consumers were beginning to think the French were committing armed robbery, journalists and entrepreneurs commenced a series of highly publicized taste-offs pitting France's most distinguished wines against some upstart and unknown California wines made from the same grape. The results, widely commercialized, ignored the intrinsic qualities and merits of the respective wines, and routinely favored the California wines.
Now, however, my crystal ball indicates that French wine devotees are in a position to get in a few good licks of their own.
In short, buyers should have a fine choice of French wines at prices unlike any in at least four years. The circumstances surrounding this change have nothing to do with a voluntary marketing policy on the part of the French wine industry, but are rather a combination of political, economic and climatic factors that all add up to lower prices for the French wine enthusiast.
As California boutiques risk burning out from continued price increases for many wines that simply are not worth the price, French wine prices are tumbling. The foreign exchanges have put the once weak dollar at its highest level against the French franc in years, and there continue to be rumors of further devaluations of the French franc. Secondly, French wine negociants have full warehouses and an abnormally large and successful 1979 harvest just arriving on these shores. There is a glut of appellation controllee wine becoming available for sale. With all of the 1979s to sell, the wine trade is sure to feel some pressure to unload some of its older inventories. The 1976 vintage got only limited play in the American arena because of very high prices, and virtually no one in this country has gobbled up the ugly ducklings of the 1977 vintage, apparently still hidden in some dark warehouse awaiting adoption. The 1978 French vintage was of very high quality, but prices are high and, despite acceptance by the trade, consumer reaction has been mixed. With the 1980 harvest awaiting bottling and the 1981 harvest looking healthy and at least above average at the time of this writing, there is potential for some very interesting developments in French wine sales over the next six to nine months, all of which should benefit the consumer.
With this situation unfolding, what should the consumer be looking for in French wine value in the near future?
First, the 1979 red bordeaux merit considerable interest. Not only is the quality of the vintage above average to very good, but the prices for these wines will be the lowest consumers have seen in at least four years. When these wines arrive late this fall and during the winter, prices will be at least 25 percent to 35 percent lower for all the famous cha teaux of bordeaux, with many of the lesser known wines, commonly called "petits cha teaux" at extremely attractive prices.
As for dry white bordeaux, there is an ocean of inexpensive white bordeaux wines available, principally from the Entre-Deux Mers region. Simple, fresh, dry and slightly suggestive of a more expensive Graves at its best, wines from the 1979 and 1980 vintages will be widely available for $2.99 to $3.99 per bottle, making them excellent values in the imported dry white wine class.
In Burgundy, there is both good and bad news. The top red and white burgundies are already so limited in quantity that their mere scarcity guarantees an artificially high pricing structure with very little relationship to quality. Burgundies from such highly regarded estates as Romanee'-Conti, Comte' de Vogue, Dujac, Lamarche, and Leflaive, to name a few, will remain prohibitively expensive. However, prices for a number of the shippers' burgundies have dropped and there are numerous white burgundies from the Macon region available at reasonable prices. Consumers serious about a good chardonnay from France should investigate the 1979 macons, rullys and mercureys around town at prices as low as $5.49 a bottle. Even the overrated pouilly-fuisse's, nothing more than highly commercialized macons, have become victims of lower prices, dropping from an absurd high of $15 a bottle to a still exorbitant $10 a bottle.
In northern Burgundy, chablis prices also have tumbled and there are many fine examples of 1979 chablis on the market. This vintage produced good wines ready to drink. Their prices range from $9.99 for a good premier cru from such vineyards as Vaillons or Montee' de Tonnerre, and from $11.99 for such fine grand cru vineyards as Les Clos, Blanchots and Valmur. Given the increasing prices of California's chardonnays, these prices seem quite reasonable.
Still, I would not fret over high red burgundy prices for the estate bottled wines of this area. Shrewd wine consumers have for years looked south to the Rhone Valley as an attractive alternative to red burgundies. Most wine authorities have largely ignored the marvelous wines of this area, which remain vastly underpriced compared to the best burgundies. Of course everyone has heard of the big, rich, generously flavored wines of Chateauneuf du Pape, which still retail in the $8 to $14 range, and the regional, solidly made Co tes du Rhone, $3.99 to $5.99. But the real glories of the Rhone Valley are the big, intensely flavored wines of Hermitage, Cornas, Gigondas and Co te Rotie. From a good producer, these wines can rival the best of the $50 burgundies, but even the most expensive of these wines rarely exceeds $12 to $15 per bottle.
If you want a beaujolais-styled wine for around $2.99, the Rhone offers several interesting wines from the Co tes du Luberon, Co tes du Ventoux and Co teaux du Tricastin. Fortunately for the consumer, the Rhone Valley, blessed with the influence of a Mediterranean climate, rarely experiences a bad vintage; and wines from 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980 vintages should all be good if competently vinified. Prices for Rhone wines remain among the most reasonable in France, and like other areas, prices here also have dropped.
Fanciers of Loire Valley and Alsatian whites also will benefit from several consecutive successful vintages and lower prices. It is only in champagne where prices are not likely to drop. Champagne is simply too popular both in France and abroad to permit any significant buildup in inventories. Unfortunately, the only thing consumers can hope for is continued price stability in this area. All things considered, I predict a good year for stocking up on the wines of France.