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.

Jurançon: Sweet or Dry

Many years ago, in my early days of studying wine (rather than just drinking it), one of the bottles our tutor brought in for us to taste was a delightful sweet wine that none of us had ever heard of before.  It was called Jurançon and it resulted in an immediate ‘Wow!’ from the whole class.  I’ve been buying it ever since – when I can find it, that is, because production is not large and much of it is drunk locally, which, in this case, is in the far south-west corner of France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

I couldn’t recommend one producer over another – they all have their own slightly different styles – but I haven’t had a bad bottle yet, so, if you enjoy dessert wine and see Jurançon, then I’d suggest you give it a try.

As I got to know these wines better, I realised that, apart from the lovely sweet bottles, there was also a dry equivalent: Jurançon Sec – if it doesn’t have ‘sec’ on the label it will be sweet.  Both are made from a blend of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng, with some Courbu and Camaralet added to some of the dry versions.  All are local grape varieties; none, as far as I know, is grown outside the region, so those in search of membership of the ‘100 Club’ should take note!

Jurancon SecAs with the sweet versions, Jurançon Sec from most producers is worth buying although we particularly enjoyed Domaine Montesquiou’s Cuvade Préciouse (Vine Trail, £13) recently.  Its tangy flavours of citrus and herbs and just a hint of spicy smokiness from the gentle oak ageing reminded me of a nice white Burgundy – there were certainly shades of the same flavours in an Auxey-Duresses we had in a restaurant a few days later; the only difference: excluding the inevitable restaurant mark-up, the Jurançon would be about half the price!

Local Food, Local Wine

It’s amazing how often the food speciality of a region and the local wine go well together – shellfish with Muscadet and the little goats’ cheese crottins with Sancerre are 2 examples that spring immediately to mind, although there are many, many more.  So, when we decided to cook a cassoulet (a delicious rich stew made from mixed meats, haricot beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs originating from the area around Toulouse in the South West of France) for some good friends recently, it seemed only natural to turn to a wine from Madiran, just a short drive to the west of the city.

Madiran is not one of the most widely-known Appellations – probably because much of the relatively small production is enjoyed locally – but the best producers turn out some really lovely intense red wines, based around the astringent, tannic local grape variety, Tannat, sometimes ‘softened’ by a little Cabernet (Sauvignon or Franc) and another native variety, Fer.

Among the names to look out for are Alain Brumont’s Montus (£26.99 from Corks) or Bouscassé, Château Laffitte-Teston or Château d’Aydie and it was this latter estate’s cuvee Odé d’Aydie (Wine Society, remarkable value at £9.99) that we opened and decanted a couple of hours before drinking – always worth doing with Madiran. 

Madiran AydieEven so, the 2013 vintage was still quite tannic at first – it has at least another 5 years good drinking ahead – but, once we started enjoying it with the robust flavours of the cassoulet, it showed as I’d hoped – mellowing admirably with attractive blackberry and spice coming to the fore.

The reason behind local food and local wine working well together remains a mystery to me; does the food come first and wines develop to match it or is it the other way around?  Or is it purely by chance?  Either way, next time you start thinking, ‘what should I drink with this?’, look where the dish comes from and hope they make wine there.

Pick up a Picpoul

Not so long ago, the name ‘Picpoul de Pinet’ would have meant nothing to all but a tiny minority of wine lovers.  Today, while still not widely known, this crisp, dry white from the Languedoc region in the south of France is beginning to establish a reputation.  And, surprisingly, much of the credit for that change must go to Britain’s major supermarkets, most of whom now have an example in their premium ranges.  Take Tescos:

Picpoul 1their ‘Finest’ Picpoul is just £7 a bottle but is delightfully refreshing with lovely herby, citrusy flavours and enough richness to suggest it would be a perfect accompaniment to many creamy fish or shellfish dishes.  And, it’s not just the supermarkets who are selling Picpoul – Majestic’s Villemarin (£8.99) and the Wine Society’s Domaine Félines-Jourdan (my favourite example and great value at £8.50) mean that it is readily available for those who are looking for something just a little different – but nothing too scary!

Picpoul, the name of the grape variety (occasionally spelt Piquepoul), apparently translates as ‘lip stinger’ in the local dialect (but don’t let that put you off); its home is a tiny area between the towns of Pézenas and Mèze overlooking the Bassin de Thau, a glorious nature reserve within a stone’s throw of the Mediterranean.  Apart from this one wine, this part of the Languedoc is an area far better known for its reds – the southern French sun and heat are too much for most whites.  But not Picpoul – it retains its acidity and freshness and provides a very welcome glass chilled on a hot day. 

And, thanks to the supermarkets, before long, more wine lovers will be able to pick up a Picpoul.

 

 

Why No Grape Names?

“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).