Category Archives: Appellation Controlee

A Bargain Burgundy

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It’s easy to spend a lot of money on a really good white Burgundy.  Yet, Burgundy is, surely, the most complicated of all of France’s Appellations Contrôlées (ACs) and, as a result, it’s just as easy to make an expensive mistake.  But, this same complexity allows you, just occasionally, to find a bargain – or as close to a bargain as is possible among the wines of this famous, much sought-after region.

A bottle I opened recently falls into this category.

Oncle Vincent

A quick glance at the label, showing the lowest level of the Burgundy hierarchy (AC Bourgogne), suggests it might be a simple everyday drinking wine, the kind you find in every supermarket for around £10 – £12.  But, look further: Olivier Leflaive is a well-respected name and the ‘Oncle Vincent’ tag looks like a special bottling, as indeed it is.  A tribute to Leflaive’s uncle and mentor, the grapes for this are from vineyards in Puligny-Montrachet, one of the most sought-after villages in the Côte de Beaune, where the top wines frequently sell for £50 a bottle and upwards. 

This example has lovely flavours of white fruits – peach and pear – made deliciously tangy and spicy from 10 months in barrels and has great length.  It’s really one of the nicest wines I’ve tasted all year.  This was the 2014 vintage I bought from the Wine Society a few years back, but they now have the 2016 vintage in their list at £20 and, if it’s as good (and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be), then it certainly is a bargain, even at that price.  I’d keep it a couple of years before opening it, though.

So, why label a wine as a simple generic Burgundy when the fruit comes from a top village?  The explanation lies in the complexity of the Burgundy ACs I mentioned earlier.  Different vineyards have different classifications – one may be Grand Cru or Premier Cru while its neighbour may just be village AC.  Clearly, Leflaive has some less favoured patches, or perhaps younger vines or even grapes not needed for more expensive wines.  Whichever is the truth, Oncle Vincent is certainly a wine that Burgundy lovers looking for value should seek out.

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Breaking the Rules

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When buying a bottle of French wine, the first thing many of us look for are the words ‘Appellation Contrôlée’ (AC) on the label.  And with good reason.  The AC tells us which part of France the wine comes from and, frequently, what sort of wine to expect when the bottle is opened.  However, contrary to the commonly held view, it doesn’t guarantee quality – only that the wine is typical of the AC claimed. 

But, perhaps surprisingly, less than half of all French wine falls into the AC category.  Another quarter is classified Indication Géographique Protegée (IGP), the new name for Vin de Pays (Country wines) – a source of many attractive, well-priced, easy-drinking bottles.  Of the rest, some is distilled into brandies (or industrial alcohol!) leaving just 10% in the category which used to be known as Vin de Table (Table wine), which, since 2010, has been renamed Vin de France.

Under the Vins de Table label, you used to find nothing but the cheapest, most basic wines and discerning wine lovers sensibly avoided them.   But, it seems, it’s not just the name that has changed with Vin de France.  Looking through the catalogue of the highly respected Bristol-based wine merchant, Vine Trail, you’ll find a number of Vins de France – and at some lofty prices.  So, what is going on? 

There’s a small band of dedicated independent-minded producers who don’t choose to play by the rules.  They are making high quality wines but prefer to experiment with styles that are rejected for the AC as they aren’t recognised as ‘typical’ by the vetting panel.  But, these people are confident in their own ability and are happy that their wines are sold as Vins de France instead.

We opened one recently:

Balmet 1Jerome Balmet has his vineyard in Beaujolais and grows Gamay, the Beaujolais grape.  But his wine is nothing like any Beaujolais I’ve ever tasted.  Initially full of vibrant bitter cherry flavours, it develops fig and prune flavours in the glass and, by the end of the evening, had taken on a savoury, meaty character.  Really distinctive and very enjoyable (Vine Trail, £16.36). 

And, although you still need to treat some bottles in the Vin de France category with caution, wines such as this are a great recommendation and a fascinating way to try something different.