Georges Duboeuf

Duboeuf thank Getty Images

(picture above thanks to Getty Images)

I was sad to read of the death, earlier this week, of one of the iconic figures of French wine, Georges Duboeuf. Nicknamed either the ‘King of Beaujolais’ or, sometimes, the ‘Pope of Beaujolais’, he transformed an unfashionable and declining Appellation into a name known throughout the wine world.

Duboeuf joined the family wine business after leaving school and the story is told that, with the typical energy of youth, he strapped some samples to his bicycle and rode off to meet some of the top restaurateurs of the day. He was clearly persuasive as a number of his bottles found their way onto prestigious wine lists. His ability to make contacts served him well and, within a few years, he brought together a group of more than 40 local winemakers in “L’Ecrin Mâconnais-Beaujolais” to market the wines of his home region.

In his 30s, he started his own wine merchant business, Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, where, to gain wider attention among customers, he began bottling the wines with the distinctive flower labels that have now become so familiar.

Duboeuf flower label

But his commercial ability didn’t end there. He created a cult around Beaujolais Nouveau Day – the 3rd Thursday in November when the first bottles of that year’s wine were released, made from grapes that were still on the vine just a few weeks earlier. He threw lavish parties, inviting film stars, famous artists and sports heroes and enlisted famous racing drivers to race each other into Paris on the Day to be the first to deliver the new wine to the capital’s restaurants. Races to New York and London followed and he increased his sales of the wine six-fold.

Without him, and his energy, Beaujolais may have become just another French country wine. As it is, we can all enjoy its fruity, food-friendly pleasures.

Let’s raise a glass to his memory.

 

 

Better than Chateauneuf?

Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf du Pape: familiar names to almost every wine lover. But, they have more in common than most casual observers realise; indeed, a producer in Châteauneuf du Pape could, in theory, label their wine as Côtes du Rhône instead if they chose. How is that possible? Because Châteauneuf du Pape is just one of dozens of individual villages in the 75000 acres of south-eastern France in which the Appellation Contrôlée (AC, now renamed Appellation Protegée or AP) of Côtes du Rhône can be used.

Châteauneuf du Pape may be the best-known village but does it make the best wines? Now there’s a question! Undoubtedly, there are some outstanding Châteauneufs and many very good ones, but I’ve also come across some rather ordinary examples that attract undeserved high prices simply because of the name. So, for value, it’s often worth looking at some of the other villages. But a word of caution: there are so many different micro-climates in this vast region and so many different grape varieties allowed by the AC regulations, that defining what a good Rhône red should be is actually quite difficult. I would suggest that finding a producer whose style you like is probably more important than the village itself.

Montvac

A good example is a wine I opened recently: Domaine Montvac is based in Vacqueyras (“vac-ker-rah”), barely 10 miles north-east of Châteauneuf. They produce a number of different wines but their ‘Variation’ bottling is unusual for the region in that it isn’t a blend but made from 100% Grenache harvested from vines planted in the 1940s. This had lovely black berry fruits together with hints of coffee, smoke and leather; absolutely delicious but it needed to be paired with some pan-fried venison steaks which perfectly complemented the weight of the wine.

Wines such as this – and most Châteauneufs – benefit from a few years ageing to soften the tannins and make the wine altogether more harmonious. My bottle was from 2012 and it has been lying quietly under our stairs for a few years (hence, I’ve long forgotten where I bought it or how much). But, at 7 years old, it was drinking well, although, if I had bought more than 1 (which I didn’t!), I would happily wait and enjoy that in another 2 or 3 years time.

 

Best of the Rest

In 1855, around 60 of the leading estates in the Médoc and Graves areas of Bordeaux joined together to form an exclusive club. Known variously as the Classed Growths, the Crus Classés or simply the 1855 Classification, these 60 were then sub-divided into 5 categories called 1st to 5th Growths in English, Premiers to Cinquièmes Crus in French.

That Classification has remained largely undisturbed in the 160 years since. Surprising? Perhaps. Yet, being at the top of this pinnacle has given the 4 original 1st Growth estates (joined by a 5th member in 1974) enormous pricing power and, as a result, the ability to re-invest massively to ensure the continuing predominance of their wines. Even those at the lower end of this select group – the 4th or 5th Growths – are, in the main, highly sought-after and you can often pay £50 and more for a ready-to-drink bottle from one of their better vintages.

But, look outside this elite classification and you can find attractive wines, typical of the Bordeaux region, at much more affordable prices. I often point my students to a group of these that I describe as ‘the best of the rest’. They’re known as the Crus Bourgeois.

One of the most recognised of these is Château Cissac. (Around £20 a bottle for the excellent 2010 vintage from specialist wine merchants).

Cissac (2)

Cissac is well placed right in the heart of the Haut-Médoc, close to the boundaries of the St Estèphe and Paulliac Appellations. Its wines, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon blended with some Merlot and a small addition of Petit Verdot, are quite aromatic but fairly restrained and need time to reach their peak – even the 2010 I opened recently was still showing some tannin.

Although, no doubt, without the length and complexity of some of the top Classified estates (speaking from reports rather than recent personal experience!), wines such as this provide pleasant, satisfying drinking and are recommended for those who enjoy the more traditional style of wine found in Bordeaux.

The 1st Rosé of Summer

It’s only taken a few warm days over the recent holiday weekend and my wife and I immediately took to drinking rosé. OK, it wasn’t just the weather (although that helped), but the Michelin-starred pub where we were staying had one of Domaine Maby’s delicious Tavel rosés on their list.

TavelI’ve bought that producer’s wines – red, white and rosé – many times before and know them all to be good. The current Wine Society list has their rosé for £11.50; sadly, at dinner, we had to pay more than 3 times that amount. Justified? I don’t think so but it’s typical of restaurants nowadays and if customers – including me – are willing to pay that excessive mark-up without protest, then can we really blame business owners for pricing wines at that level?

So, although the cost may have left a sour taste in the mouth, the wine certainly did not. Tavel is, without doubt, the outstanding village in France’s southern Rhône region for rosé wines and Maby’s example is a crisp but full-bodied (14% alcohol) blend of local varieties including Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The grapes are selected from 3 different vineyards, each giving their own character to the wine and from vines averaging almost 50 years old. The wine itself is bone dry but with lovely flavours of strawberries and redcurrants and a persistent, fruity finish. Although it’s a wine I would happily drink on its own, it really shows best with food and was a perfect match with both my wife’s risotto of young spring vegetables and my roast breast of guinea fowl.

While a warm spring or summer day is undoubtedly the obvious time for rosés, wines as good as this are worth opening at any time and for any occasion.

Sweet but Delicate

Mention dessert wines and most wine lovers will immediately think of Sauternes – the famous golden nectar from Bordeaux. And why not? But Sauternes is only one of hundreds of sweet wines which, incidentally, aren’t just marvellous accompaniments to the pudding course; they are often equally delicious partnering a blue cheese or a rich paté. And, of course, don’t ignore how good some sweet wines can also be as an aperitif!

But, in general, this style of wine is designed to go with the dessert, and, if trying to match the two, it’s always a good idea to ensure the wine is sweeter than the food; the other way round and the wine will be drained of much of its sweetness and may taste sharp and thin.

I opened a dessert wine at a dinner party with some good friends recently – not one from Sauternes but from an estate in the less well-known Côtes de Gascogne, about an hour’s drive south.

Tariquet sweetDomaine du Tariquet’s Dernières Grives (Wine Society, £15.50) is, perhaps, a little less sweet than a typical Sauternes yet has a lovely delicacy and charm – thanks to only 11.5% alcohol. That makes it a perfect partner for a lighter pudding – the apple fool that we served or a crème brulée or some fresh strawberries are other possibilities that come to mind.

The wine is mainly made from the local Petit Manseng grape (a variety that lovers of the wines of Jurançon would be familiar with), left on the vine late into the autumn to over-ripen and then picked (as the producers note on their website) before the local birds, especially the thrushes, get to them! They even name the wine after the birds – dernières grives is the French for last thrushes.

This is a delicious alternative sweet wine – without the power or richness of a Sauternes, but beautifully balanced and fresh and a simple delight at the end of our enjoyable, sociable meal with friends.

Look South for Value

S France tasting 1More than a quarter of all French wine comes from the south: the regions of Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It’s not surprising given the Mediterranean coast’s ideal climate for ripening grapes. But it’s only in last 30 years or so that the potential for quality wines from this climate has been realised. For much of 20th century, the emphasis here was on cheap, bulk wines and, as a result, most wine lovers rightly ignored this part of the world completely.

How things have changed! Today, all three regions are making really attractive wines. Yes, you still need to be selective (as you do almost anywhere) but, if you are, your chances of finding something delicious are high – and you won’t have to pay a fortune for it as those who came to a tasting I ran on the subject recently discovered.

I concentrated mostly on wines made from grape varieties that are native to the region – none more so than Picpoul, a fresh, crisp white grown almost exclusively around the beautiful Etang de Thau. Villemarin make a delightful example (only £7.99 from Majestic, where you can find all the wines mentioned in this blog).

Further along the coast, Provence is one of the few wine making regions of the world to concentrate on the production of rosé – it represents more than 80% of the output. Sadly, some of their best examples sell for silly prices and many of the cheaper ones are aimed solely at undemanding tourists. But I found a notable exception in the elegant, dry Vallée des Pins (£8.99), a blend of Grenache and Syrah with lovely strawberry fruit.

Despite the focus of Provence, the south of France is still essentially red wine country and, of the 2 we tasted, preferences were divided between the Fleurs de la Vigne, a young, berry-fruited Carignan-dominated blend from the Fitou area (£8.99) and the slightly more robust, chewy Grenache/ Syrah from Château Guiot in the Costières de Nîmes closer to the Rhône (£7.99).

Everyone had their own favourites on the night but all agreed that this is an area whose wines are worth exploring – particularly as so many are remarkable value for money.

Jones the Winemaker

In Wales, the surname ‘Jones’ is very widespread. Add in the fact that successive generations of a family often share the same first or given name, distinguishing between one Jones and another can become a little difficult. As a result, the habit arose to refer to people by their job; so, you get ‘Jones the Teacher’, ‘Jones the Butcher’ or ‘Jones the Farmer’. But, I suspect, rarely ‘Jones the Winemaker’ (although Wales has always had a few vineyards – a number that has expanded rapidly in the last few years).

But, there is a ‘Jones the Winemaker’, albeit in the south of France, rather than in Wales. After emigrating from the UK and working there for a few years, Katie Jones bought a vineyard in the Languedoc and began to make her own wine. She now has around 12 hectares (30 acres) spread across a number of small sites in the hillier, inland part of the Fitou Appellation. Following the classic recipe for making great wines, she has focussed on patches of low yielding old vines planted on very poor rocky soils.

As a result, life hasn’t been easy, particularly in 2013 when Katie lost her entire white wine production after some vandals opened the taps on her tanks, but, happily, she has fought back and her wines reflect her dedication.

Jones Fitou

Her Fitou (Wine Society, £15.50) is typical; a rich, savoury blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – some from vines over 100 years old – giving a lovely spicy mouthful of hedgerow fruits, liquorice and leather. The label says 14.5% alcohol, and, although a big wine, this is beautifully balanced. Definitely needing food to show at its best – something full and robust: venison or other game, perhaps, or a mushroom- or aubergine-based dish spring to mind.

Jones the Winemaker is definitely a name to follow.