The Anglophone press loves to tell the story of French culinary decline, the fall in the number of family boulangeries and boucheries, the decline of the long lunch and the burgeoning French love of fast food. This mix of envy and cultural cringe has been particularly apparent in the reporting of the wine industry’s supposed fall from grace.
The latest was the news that Americans have overtaken the French as the world’s biggest wine consumers. That per capita consumption in France remains much higher than in either the US or the UK didn’t make the story any more welcome to the French: they are drinking 20% less than they were a decade ago, at around 46 litres each a year.
It’s not hard to find evidence of the disastrous effects this has had on hard-pressed producers in the traditional wine regions. The Languedoc tends to attract most attention as home of wine radicals and direct action protest group CRAV (Comité Régional d’Action Viticole), which has been implicated in two bomb attacks in the past year. There are scary statistics in many if not most French wine regions, reports of 50% of producers giving up over the last decade in extreme cases such as Muscadet in the Loire. Bad weather and poor harvests in 2012 and 2013 haven’t helped.
Against this backdrop of struggle and, in many cases, real poverty, it might seem a little heartless to suggest that la crise viticole has had some beneficial effects. But from the point of view of the drinker, it’s unarguably true. I don’t mean in the vulture capitalist sense of seizing on the low prices offered by struggling producers. It’s a matter of producers realising there’s not much of a future in trying to sell as much vin ordinaire as possible, and that they’d be better off trying to make smaller quantities of grander vin instead.
The continued success of those top estates in Bordeaux and Burgundy that have been largely immune to the crisis has played a part in that, and not only in setting an example of how to sell fine wine for a fortune. As the prices of even modest village wines in Burgundy and chateaux in Bordeaux have increased, a space is left for other regions to fill. And with prices of land in top vineyard sites in both regions now prohibitive (many of the best properties are now in the hands of investment banks, insurance firms and luxury goods conglomerates), it’s not hard to understand why an ambitious producer looking to start on their own would look to cheaper regions in which to set up.
The result is that quality in France, particularly around the £10 mark, is now more widely available than ever,with many of the country’s best wines now being made in previously unheralded regions.
It might be a traditional producer in the Jura making the nutty whites and pale earthy reds now de rigueur on top wine lists in New York and London. It might be a family that used to help fill the plastic demi-johns at the local co-operative in the Roussillon is making something stunning from a neglected patch of old carignan vines. It could be an Italianate red blend from Corsica, a feather light roussette from Alpine Savoie, or a crunchy, raspberry-scented mansois (aka fer servadou) from Marcillac in the Aveyron, but the story of French wine is about far more than distress and tristesse.
Six French wines you didn’t know about
Domaine Daniel Dugois Trousseau Grevillière, Arbois, Jura, France 2011 (From £17.50, The Smiling Grape Company; Vinoteca
The wines of the Jura are not like anything else, whether in whites that taste like a mix of sherry and white burgundy, or in reds like this one that have some of the pale interesting appeal of pinot noir, but with a lucid spicy cherry, subtly earthy character all their own.
Domaine Gilles Berlioz Chignin Le Jaja, Savoie, France 2012 (£16.95, Vine Trail)
No doubt the power of suggestion has something to do with it, but there’s a flowing lightness to the wines made from jacquère in Alpine Savoie that make comparisons with mountain streams impossible to resist. So it is here, the freshness complemented with delicate green apple and minerals.
Domaine Balland-Chapuis Coteaux du Giennois 2012 (£9.99, Waitrose)
If you love the cool greenness and citric pulse of Pouilly Fumé but find the prices too hot to handle, neighbouring Coteaux du Giennois is a useful appellation to know: Domaine Balland-Chapuis’s example being superbly racy and crisp at a much kinder price.
Domaine Gauby Les Calcinaires Rouge, Côtes du Roussillon, France 2011 (from £14.50, The Wine Society; Berry Bros & Rudd
Gérard Gauby was an early pioneer of quality wine in a part of the world previously better known for the rough and ready. Best known for his nervy mineral whites, his reds are just as good: this is luminous of red and black fruit, but silky of tannin and fresh of finish.
Sant Armettu Sartène Rouge, Corsica 2012 (from £15.95, Noel Young Wines, www.nywine.co.uk; Vinoteca, H2Vin)
The blend here is mostly sciacerellu and niellucciu (the Corsican names for Tuscan grapes sangiovese and mammolo), with a bit of the Rhône’s syrah and grenache. The result: an evocative Italianate red of wild herb, liquorice, dark cherry and chewy tannins.
Château de Cabidos Comte Philippe de Nazelle Petit Manseng Sec 2008 (from £12.90, Hedonism Wines; Theatre of Wine
The manseng grapes – gros and in this case petit – are a speciality of the southwest, yielding white wines both dry and sweet with a distinctive tang and thrust. This full rich dry example from vineyards just outside Jurançon shimmers with exotic fruit and fresh acidity.
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