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French vineyards a casualty of war

Margaux (France), April 7: The first tasting of France’s 2002 wines has given Bordeaux’s winemakers a headache worse than any hangover.

The war, coupled with France’s opposition to the US, has caused the American presence to dwindle to a trickle.

The most notable absentee is Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic. His ratings make or break scores of winemakers each year.

For the first time in more than 20 years he has not travelled from his home in Pennsylvania to Bordeaux for the spring tastings, citing fears of terrorism.

“It’s a total catastrophe for many winemakers,” Hervé Salhi, one of St Emilion’s leading wine merchants, said. “They depend on Parker as their only form of marketing. He is the Pope in this community. He says he’ll come later in the year, but by that time it’s going to be too late for many vineyards.”

During the late 1990s many American dealers and private buyers bought up large stocks of French wine.

Given the war, and the fact that the 2002 vintage promises to be decent rather than extraordinary, they are sitting out this season.

From his sun-baked courtyard overlooking St Emilion, M Salhi said: “We have had our years of feast and now I think we are facing several years of famine.”

The anxiety in Bordeaux is a reflection of French public concern that President Jacques Chirac has gone too far in alienating the US. Relations with Britain are felt to be sufficiently robust to avoid damage.

Hubert de Bouard de Laforest, the head of the St Emilion wine syndicate and the seventh generation of his family to run the Chateau Angelus vineyards, said he could not remember more forbidding economic times in Bordeaux.

“It’s not that Americans don’t like the French, just that given the choice they would rather not come here right now,” he said.

It is not just the wines that Americans buy, but also the hotels and restaurants they use that are suffering. “They are the cream of the cream in terms of customers,” he says.

Across the Gironde, even the mighty Chateau Margaux is anxious.

“We’re concerned about our friendly relationship, such a fundamental business and human relationship, with the US being strained,” said the Chateau’s general manager, Paul Pontallier.

A poll suggesting that only 34 per cent of French people support the war has sent shivers through the country’s politicians and businesses.

They fear that President Chirac has unleashed a wave of anti-Americanism.

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