Jon Bonné: The New French Wine

5 mins read
Jon Bonné

864 pages in two volumes, the result of eight years of research and 30,000 kilometres travelled in France. The numbers alone command respect. Especially since the US journalist Jon Bonné is no stranger to Europe. His book “The New California Wine. A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste” signalled a paradigm shift in the USA. Published in 2013, a year after Robert Parker stepped down as editor-in-chief of the Wine Advocate, it gave readers access to a fascinating world of wine beyond the mainstream. Now France. For Bonné still “the soul of the global wine industry” and the “most exciting place on Earth to drink wine.” An incomparably bigger task. “C’est compliqué. It’s complicated,” is then also the first, sympathetic sentence of the book.

A one-sided panorama

Bonné’s subject is the “new” French wine. This makes his book exciting and problematic at the same time. Exciting because it promises insights into current developments that are currently dramatically changing France’s viticulture. And Bonné truly distils a lot of material from his travels and interviews. The first volume, “The Narrative”, contains a content-rich overview of the 16 central wine-growing regions along with intermediate chapters on current topics. Such as natural wine, the controversy surrounding the appellation system, new ways of vineyard management and climate change. The second volume, “The Producers”, contains a good 800 portraits of winegrowers. This is first of all overwhelming in a positive sense, because it is always worth reading, borne of personal commitment and “à jour”. But, and this is a structural weakness of the book, it gains a picture of the “New French Wine” primarily from interviews with principally very similar interlocutors, mostly independent winemakers from small businesses on the fringes of the mainstream. In Berlin, one would speak of a “bubble”.

Bonné’s definition of “new” is even more problematic. The author knows, of course, that “old” and “new” have been discussed in French viticulture since time immemorial. Thus, on the question of destemming the grapes, he cites a Burgundian debate from 1968 about a “méthode ancienne” and a “méthode traditionelle” that can be traced back to 1801. Which leads him to the correct conclusion that the opposition of “old” versus “new” wine styles in Burgundy has existed for a very long time and their issues are ultimately still unresolved. By “new”, however, Bonné means more than just questions of method. And more than authors before him such as the Briton Andrew Jefford. His 2002 book “The New France” was a founding document of the current terroir movement and which Bonné irritatingly does not mention at all. For in his work, too, the rediscovery of terroir is of course a central theme.

A far-reaching agenda

But Bonné has an agenda that goes beyond this. For him, “new” encompasses economic-sociological, art-theoretical and historical-philosophical aspects. On the one hand, there is the strikingly individualistic perspective. Bonné has only contempt for the French cooperative movement (“old structures … in decline for decades”). He also sees the winemaker-négociants partnership model, in which producers buy their grapes from contract winemakers, in decline. Bonné identifies both cases with mass production, while he locates quality viticulture only with the independent winemaker. He identifies this contrast far too hastily with that of “artisanal” and “industrial” viticulture. And overlooks the fact that cooperatives and négociants also produce world-class wines and Champagnes. “To stand alone”, he implores French winegrowers, even when it comes to groupings such as in natural wine.

Moreover, “new” in Bonné means “progressive”. This is not meant in the political sense, but, as he clarifies with a review into art history, in the aesthetic sense. “Progressive” for him is the victory of “gorgeous exploding impressionism” against the conservative preservationists and formalists. It is the same impulse that is at work for him in “New French Wine”, which gives his argument a particular urgency. Now, one could object that the avant-garde concept is also 120 years old and has long been buried today. “Das Ende der Avantgarde” was the title of a major art exhibition in Munich as early as 1995, for example. But what is important for Bonné’s argument is not the artistic significance of the avant-garde. But that it was a triumph of the rejected and outsiders over the mainstream.

Individualistic, progressive and postmodern

A gaudy red faux-barn? Château L՚Évangile

And so, for him, almost every form of the French wine establishment belongs to the old, doomed world. Even in Bordeaux, it is the small vigneron and not the château that represents the future for him, which leads to the fact that no first or second-classified growth in the Médoc is counted as “New French Wine”. How strongly this selection is determined by resentment shows the case of Pomerol’s Château L՚Évangile. Its “gaudy red faux-barn” actually serves Bonné as evidence of the “money incursions” of the “Lafite Rothschild empire” − a more than misleading formulation. Andrew Jefford, on the other hand, who wrote about “The New France” before Bonné, recently paid homage to the greatness of the region in the “Decanter Bordeaux Guide 2023”. Because Bordeaux still gives us the “benchmark” and “reference points” to classify the diversity of the wine world.

Cooper at Château Margaux

More fruitful is Bonné’s characterization of the new French viticulture as “postmodern-traditionalist.” In a key passage, it states, “increasingly there is the notion that today’s vigneron has to be a postmodern traditionalist – casting off the alleged advances of the late twentieth century in favor of a return to some of the better ideas of the past.” The term “postmodernism” has also come out of the philosophical mothballs by now, like that of the avant-garde. And Bonné, unfortunately, often uses it rather blurrily, for instance when he writes of the “postmodern situation” in France. The term makes sense, however, with regard to the concept of an agrarian modernity, i.e., a purely technical and production-quantity-oriented agrarianism, which essentially shaped the second half of the 20th century in the Western world. Here Bonné hits a point and names an essential impulse of many of the best winemakers of our time.

The Outer Rim

It is useless to contemplate what a great book “The New French Wine” might have been if it were not so thoroughly marked by its polarizing ideology. A subheading in the Bordeaux chapter, “The Outer Rim,” makes clear how Bonné sees the wine world. Along the lines of Star Wars, in which an evil Empire rules the galaxy and is challenged only by a few rebels “on the outer rim.” No one will be able to seriously claim that the wine sector is an ideal world. But the real danger today comes from outside: from the growing neo-prohibitionism, for example, or the growing disinterest of the younger generations, who simply can no longer relate to concepts like origin or vintage wines.

Unfortunately, the book contains a number of misconceptions. The most important concerns the analogy of U.S. Prohibition and the effects of the phylloxera plague in France: “If Prohibition broke American traditions of wine drinking, phylloxera did the same for France.” Bonné needs this equation to justify why, after the phylloxera plague, French viticulture turned into the wrong system that the “new French wine” is then supposed to overcome. In fact, there has never been a break in French wine culture. On the one hand, phylloxera affected regions with very different intensity for several decades, and on the other hand, imports from “new” wine regions such as Rioja, Catalonia or Chile replaced domestic French production. In fact, French and U.S. wine culture are more different than Bonné would like to admit − and so the concept he tested in “The New California Wine” cannot be applied so easily to France. Because everything there is even more complicated than Bonné assumes.


Jon Bonné: New French Wine. Redefining the World’s Greatest Wine Culture
Ten Speed Press
864 pages, hardcover, size: 214 x 271mm, numerous color illustrations

Image rights

Illustrations of the book cover and double pages: Ten Speed Press, New York. Photographs inside: Susannah Ireland. Illustrations: Francesco Bongiorni

Portrait Jon Bonné: Erik Castro

Photos Château L՚Évangile and Château Margaux: Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images

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