Young people are giving wine a miss. Can anxious vintners seduce them with jaunty ads and Internet gimmicks?
Zut alors, c'est un scandale. The young are turning away from wine. Seduced at an early age by disgustingly sweet alcoholic lemonades and cola, and little bottles of mind-blowingly strong and nasty pale cider, they don't know a decent decanter of Bordeaux from a carafe of cat's pee. Go into any wine bar or restaurant and watch people scanning the wine list with furrowed brow, handing it back and muttering: "Erm, we'll just take a bottle of the house white."

And, even more scandaleux, this trend is not confined to the British, who have always been more or less philistine when it comes to matters of wine. Les jeunes in France and Germany are following the same sad pattern. In this country, the most recent Government National Food Survey found that wine consumption pales beside beer and lager guzzling, and a survey by the Victoria Wine chain earlier this year found that 27 per cent of British households never serve wine. But in France the news is truly shocking - wine drinking has dropped by more than two-thirds, from 90 litres per head in 1965 to a mere 25 last year.

Young drinkers can be particularly blunt in their views. "I don't mind drinking wine if I come across it," says Eve Masters, 19. "But it's expensive and sometimes it's not very nice. Also it doesn't last very long compared to a pint." Cost seems to be a big disincentive among youthful consumers. "Two glasses of wine won't get you as pissed as two Diamond Whites," observed one, bluntly.

French wine producers are not taking this lying down. Bordeaux vintners are leading the way with a pounds 1m nationwide campaign featuring big pictures of chips, pasta and pizzas jauntily shaped like bow-ties, and recommendations for the Bordeaux variety that will best complement the nation's favourite foods.

"We're appealing to young occasional wine drinkers who want to have fun," says Fiona Morrison, international spokeswoman for the Bordeaux Wine Council. "We are dusting off the old image of Bordeaux. We want to demystify it and make it accessible. We do need to encourage young people to drink wine - not in a 'It's Friday night, let's slam down a few Chardonnays' way, though," she hastily adds.

The ads don't have anything as fuddy-duddy as a phone number for further information - they are furnished with a world wide web site address (albeit one that's missing a vital hyphen) where wine aficionados can send e-mail. Access the Bordeaux web site and there are wine games to be played, or there will be once a few technical delays have been ironed out. There is also an extremely long and detailed history of Bordeaux wines from the first century AD, which doesn't look to have much fun appeal. Morrison explains that the site is to be linked to another that will give restaurant and travel information for the more "hip, cruising" site users.

All this cyberlevity, however, does not mean the French have stopped taking their wine very seriously. Gina Landero, the account manager at TBWA in Paris, which is responsible for the ad, says the posters are to advise "25 to 35- year-olds who find when they begin to drink wine it is too complicated, too expensive". And should they raise a laugh? Non! A little smile maybe. "The ads are not to be laughed at. The claim is made for humour, not for laughing."

It's true that picking from a long and scary wine list is no laughing matter, particularly if a waiter is hovering. Passing the buck is a cowardly but useful tactic. "I know it's white with fish or chicken, red with red meat, but that's about as far as it goes - God knows what with rabbit or vegetarian food," says Lucy McCaffrey, 29. "When I have to take clients to lunch, I always get them to choose the wine themselves, and hope they don't pick one that costs an arm and a leg. It's particularly easy if they are men, because waiters always give the wine list to the man at the table. I prefer to buy wine in a supermarket, where I can pick a newspaper recommendation off the shelf."

Putting yourself in someone else's hands seems to be a preferred option among the 25 to 35-year- olds that the Bordeaux Wine Council is targeting. "I have a friendly and excellent wine merchant," says Tim Rattray, 31. "I just go in and say we're having roast lamb or sausage and mash or whatever it happens to be, and he comes up with something."

At least they are prepared to try, however flounderingly. Kathryn McWhirter, wine writer for the Independent on Sunday and co-author of The Sainsbury's Pocket Food and Wine Guide, recalls a distinct lack of youthful response at signing sessions. "I was surprised how few young people who came in were interested in wine - what they wanted to drink was Liebfraumilch. The concept of matching food and wine was irrelevant to them."

All is not doom and gloom, however. Wine critics such as Malcolm Gluck, with his robust rebuttal of high-falutin' wine snobbery, will appeal to younger drinkers; Gluck will appear on television later this year.

Debbie Worton, marketing director of Majestic Wine Warehouses, where the average age of employees is 27, says: "We make sure our staff are young, enthusiastic and well trained, and we encourage tastings. A customer who's nervous, perhaps buying the wine for their own wedding, will be greeted by a friendly young person who knows their Beaujolais from their Barolo, and can whip the cork out for a taste." She thinks the Bordeaux and pizza ad is great: "It's part of the cultural milieu of people of this age group. If we can establish a connection between pizza and wine, that's excellent."

Aside from delivering a bottle with every take-away, how can wine be rehabilitated with the young? "Tasting is important," says McWhirter. "Shops like Oddbins or Majestic which do tastings are very useful. And it's important that children should see wine as part of everyday life, rather than just for special occasions. Medically, a little wine is good, but if you have your whole allowance on a Saturday night, it will kill you eventually. From 11 or 12 I would give children half an inch, moving on to half a glass or so by 16." Early apprenticeship means early expertise, McWhirter says. "We give my eight-year-old daughter sniffs and tiny sips and she can already tell a Sauvignon from a Gewurztraminer from a Chardonnay."