Category Archives: France

Why No Grape Names?

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“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels?  It’s so confusing.”  A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently. 

I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio.  But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward.  Sadly, there’s no easy solution.2013-11-18 10.29.53

These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from.  There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!)  So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle.  The French call this ‘terroir’.  And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?

Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States.  So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine?  The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.

It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon.  Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain.  For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label). 

(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).

A Loire Newcomer

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chateau-chenonceau

Chenonceau – one of the most familiar and frequently photographed of the Châteaux of France’s Loire Valley.  But, apart from it being a wonderful sight, why is it heading my Bristol Wine Blog?  The reason: Chenonceau has joined the hundreds of other villages all over France entitled to claim Appellation Contrôlée (or Appellation Protégée as it is now officially known).

So, why does this matter?  Previously, wines from here were lumped under AC Touraine, which covers the whole of the wider area and includes some good and some not-so-good examples.  By breaking out of this general designation, the producers of Chenonceau (and there aren’t many!) hope to gain a real reputation for quality.

And, if the first example I’ve tasted from the new AC is anything to judge by, then Chenonceau will be a name to remember.  The Domaine de la Renne Chenonceau Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) was the stand-out wine from a Bristol Tasting Circle evening of Loire wines hosted by a relatively new firm, Joie de Vin (Joiedevin.co.uk).   The owners, Tim and Jill North, specialise in sourcing good quality and good value wines from small producers in the Loire and the Languedoc-Roussillon.

chenonceaux

The Renne Chenonceau is beautifully balanced and with all the character of a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé but with, perhaps, a little more weight and richness resulting, in part, from 3 years maturation on the lees.  That may sound an extraordinary length of time – it does to me – yet the wine – from the 2013 vintage – still tastes young and fresh and, unlike many Sauvignons, looks to have several years of good drinking ahead of it.

 

Apart from this wine, the other tip I took away from this tasting was that Muscadet is back.  For so long, a source of dull, tart wines best avoided, I have begun to notice some improvements recently, a view confirmed by a couple of examples from Joie de Vin’s portfolio. 

So, 2 areas to look out for – and a supplier to watch, too!

Côtes du Rhône Unravelled

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cotes-du-rhoneCôtes du Rhône: surely one of the most recognisable and popular wines on our shelves.  But how many who casually pick up a bottle in their local supermarket realise how much more there is to Côtes du Rhône than its usual reputation as just an easy drinking, good value, medium bodied red?

It’s one of the largest – and most diverse – Appellations in France with an annual output of over 250 million bottles.  The area stretches for more than 70 miles from just south of Valence to beyond Avignon, encompassing a vast range of microclimates and soils.  And, although most producers will use a Grenache dominated blend of grapes for their wine, there is almost infinite leeway to create their own favoured style as almost 20 different varieties are permitted for use in Côtes du Rhône blends.  So, finding a producer whose style you like is important.

There’s a quality hierarchy, too: at the entry level are attractive, fruity wines simply labelled ‘Côtes du Rhône’.  A step up in quality, complexity and, usually, price is ‘Côtes du Rhône-Villages’ which comes from some of the more favoured sites within the area.  Within this category, certain villages have been promoted and can either append their names to the Côtes du Rhône-Villages designation or have their name stand alone on the label.  Among the best of these are Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Cairanne.  All produce wines from the same range of grapes as basic Côtes du Rhône but, again, there is considerable variety from place to place and even within individual villages.  Prices of these are a little higher still.

Then there’s the most famous individual Rhône village of all: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Their best wines are undoubtedly excellent but they come at prices that reflect both their own quality and the popularity of the village as a whole.  And, away from these, some can be a little disappointing.  So, for me, for value and interesting drinking, I mainly look to the lesser-known villages mentioned above.

And, finally, to complete the message of diversity (or, perhaps, confusion), you might have noticed from the picture that not all Côtes du Rhône is red – there’s some white and rosé, too!

 

The Place for Syrah

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Millions of holidaymakers will speed south through France on the Autoroute du Soleil this summer heading for the Mediterranean resorts and beyond.  Few, I suspect, will realise (or even care) just how close they are passing to some of the world’s most famous vineyards.  Those of Burgundy are generally just out of sight from the road but, if you stop a little later in the journey, things are very different.  From several of the picnic sites on the stretch between Vienne and Valence, the spectacularly steep and rocky vineyards of the northern Rhône can be seen clearly on the far bank of the river.

Your first thought might be to question why anyone would choose to plant vines in such difficult terrain.  The answer: to give the grapes the best chance of ripening.  The majority of the vines here will be Syrah (although the grape name will rarely appear on the label) – a variety that thrives on plenty of heat and sunshine.  It’s the same variety that, under its alternative name of Shiraz, does particularly well in Australia’s warmest areas.  In fact, it’s that country’s most widely planted variety, accounting for around 30% of the annual harvest.

But the northern Rhône is nowhere near as warm or sunny as the Barossa so, here, the Syrah vines need everything to be in their favour to ripen well: the steep, south-east facing vineyards get the most sunshine and are sheltered from cold northerly winds; the rocky soil is well drained and the rocks play their part by reflecting more heat onto the vines.

Even so, bottles from these vineyards are often a world away in style from an Aussie Shiraz.

Saint JosephThe one I opened recently was only 12.5% alcohol.  Cave Saint Desirat’s Saint Joseph (Waitrose, £13.99) is delightfully elegant with lovely raspberry and blackberry fruit and a hint of pepperiness – ideal with a steak or, perhaps better, pan fried venison.  A lovely wine – and one that is only possible by growers battling the daunting slopes you’ll see if you pause on your route through France.

The wrong grapes on the wrong soil?

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Saint-Péray may not be one of the more familiar Appellations of France but, as regular Bristol Wine Blog readers will know, I’m always keen to seek out wines from these less well-known areas.  Sometimes, they are better value than their more fashionable neighbours; at other times they just make good and interesting drinking, perhaps with some unusual and different flavours.  The Saint-Péray we enjoyed recently (£14.99 from Waitrose) probably fits more into the second category, although, for the quality, it is by no means expensive.

Saint Peray

Saint-Péray is on the west bank of the River Rhône, near the town of Valence and used to produce mainly sparkling wines described by Tom Stevenson (in a 20 year old Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia that I’ve kept for no logical reason) as ‘overrated, having a coarse mousse and made from the wrong grapes grown on the wrong soil’!  Well, the same grapes, Marsanne and Roussane, are still being grown in the same soil; the key things that have changed are that, today, more of the wines are made still rather than sparkling and a number of top producers have moved in and transformed the quality of the grapes in the vineyard and the standards of winemaking.

And it was the name of three of these producers, working together, on the label that attracted me to this wine: Pierre Gaillard, Yves Cuilleron and François Villard all make their own wines (Cuilleron’s Condrieu is stunningly good) but also collaborate under the banner ‘Les Vins de Vienne’.  I wasn’t disappointed; this is a full bodied, flavoursome, dry, rich white that has spent 9 months ageing, partly in barrel.  The oak is quite noticeable, as is the alcohol (13.5%) but neither dominates the spicy palate (cinnamon and ginger came to mind) with its attractive sourness – the kind you get from baked apples.  And it might be even better after a couple more years in bottle or, if you can’t wait, decanting.

If this is the wrong grape in the wrong soil, then give me more!

 

 

“The Judgement of Paris”

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40 years ago this week, a tasting organised in Paris by a young Englishman, Steven Spurrier, stunned the wine world. He invited a group of renowned French judges – restauranteurs, producers and wine writers – to compare (blind) a selection of top Californian wines – Chardonnays and Cabernets – with leading Burgundies and Bordeaux. Of course, the French wines were certain to come out on top; it was really only a question of how close the best of the Californian wines could score.

Only it didn’t work out like that at all! From the 10 Chardonnays, the winner was Chateau Montelena from vineyards in Napa and Calistoga with 2 further Californian bottles – from Chalone Vineyards and Spring Mountain – 3rd and 4th. Just Domaine Roulot’s Meursault Premier Cru in 2nd place prevented a clean sweep in this category.

Surely the French would do better with their reds with star names Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion among their representatives? Actually, no! Those 2 managed 2nd and 3rd places but the winner, yet again, was from California: Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet from Napa Valley.

Judgement of Paris montage

(picture: thanks to Wikipedia)

Amazingly, the only journalist present (Spurrier was, at the time, a wine shop and wine school owner – his illustrious writing career came later) was George Taber from Time Magazine. He submitted a lengthy article only to see it edited down to just 4 paragraphs. But that was enough, especially as it appeared under the eye-catching title “The Judgement of Paris”. As soon as the magazine hit the newsstands, demand for Montelena and Stag’s Leap went crazy while some of the defeated French producers accused Spurrier of rigging the results (he hadn’t).

But the tasting didn’t just benefit the winning producers; Robert Mondavi commented later that ‘it put California on the world map of great wine-producing regions’. And I’d suggest that also it gave credibility to quality-minded producers in other parts of the world who, up to that time, hadn’t been taken seriously by wine lovers who were, by and large, traditionally Francophile.

I’ve tried France v the Rest of the World tastings on a number of occasions, generally with similar unpredictable results to The Judgement of Paris. It’s always great fun. Why not try it yourself with some friends?

 

The Mosaic of Burgundy

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9 Gevrey Chambertin

Burgundy’s vineyards are often described as a ‘mosaic’; look at the picture above and you’ll see why. Some strips of land ploughed and bare, others covered with grass. And it’s all due to French inheritance laws which dictate that land and property are divided between all of the children. So, the field may look like a single vineyard but it actually has many different owners, each farming a small part, each having their own ideas about the best way to farm. And, most importantly for wine lovers, each able to decide how the wines made from their particular strip of the vineyard should taste.

The result is that, when you’re buying Burgundy, you don’t only have to check which vineyard the wine comes from, but the grower, too; some are brilliant, others are good but might not make wine to your taste and then there’s a third group: those who know that anything with the name ‘Burgundy’ on the label will sell and don’t make too much effort.

So, if you’re visiting the region, as we did recently with Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (www.winetours.co.uk), it’s good to have an expert to guide you. Ours, Steven Spurrier, has spent his whole working life in the wine industry and his knowledge of and contacts in Burgundy are unrivalled so the tastings arranged for us were truly exceptional. We visited famous names like Drouhin (the Beaune Clos des Mouches Blanc 2001 was a highlight of our first evening) and Bouchard Aîné (their Corton 2000 is just reaching its peak) as well as some of the best smaller producers – those with interesting and different ideas. Take Frédéric Magnien, for example; he matures some of his wines in clay amphorae – for him, oak barrels mask the fruit. His wines certainly showed great purity of flavour, while Jacques Prieur uses horses rather than tractors to work his vineyards to avoid compacting the soil and restricting the spread of the roots.

Wherever we went, we tasted some fantastic wines – many from old reserve stock no longer on sale – but all reflecting the marvellous diversity of the mosaic of vineyards we saw on the ground.

One final thought: despite their differences, all the producers we visited had one thing in common. If you can work out what’s happening in the picture below (suggestions welcome!), you may know what I’m referring to. If not, I’ll tell you in my next Bristol Wine Blog.

18 Ch de Monthelie manure extraction