Saturday, 13 August 2011

The friendly face of French wine

Having always dominated the international wine market, France has had a rocky time in recent years. Fierce competition has emerged from all corners of the globe, notably Australasia and the Americas, as well as from European neighbours such as Spain; and the domestic market is in decline.

Rather than risk becoming the preserve of devoted connoisseurs or holidaymakers snapping up bargains to take home, a growing number of French producers are freshening up the presentation and labelling of their wines to entice new consumers. Appellation Contrôlée labelling is about guaranteeing the geographical source of the product, with production methods enshrined in this and very little consumer-friendly information is presented. In most cases, only the name of the producer, vintage date (if there is one), alcohol content and volume; it generally doesn't tell you which grape varieties are used (if you're lucky this information will appear on the back label). You might find you like wines from a particular region or commune, such as Côtes du Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe, Bordeaux and St Emilion. However, as the French wine industry is so fragmented, involving thousands of producers, you need to make a note of the producer of the wines you prefer. Otherwise, it can be a bit of a gamble and an expensive one at that.

With this in mind, I've been taking an interest in entry level French wines appearing on the shelves. Some contemporary French wines can be a bit gimmicky, but here are three examples I've particularly enjoyed this summer (all from Waitrose). All are sealed with screwcaps (perfect for picnics) and are blends from southern France. No mention of the grape varieties (unless you turn around the bottle), but distinctive labels to encourage repeat sales.

The punningly named Chat-en-Oeuf Blanc 2010 (see above), made by Boutinot from Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne from the Pays d'Oc, has a citrussy freshness with subtle hints of apricot. It's quite light, but tasty enough as an aperitif or sipped with light summery food, such as simply grilled fish.
Waitrose Wine Direct £5.21 or £62.52 for a case of 12.

Another wine from the Pays d'Oc, Au Bord de la Mer 2010 is a blend of 75 percent Vermentino and 25 percent Chardonnay, with fresh, stylish results. I love the chic presentation of this wine as it conveys itself beautifully and remains respectfully French (particularly nice work by importer and co-producer Richard Speirs). Great for fish and seafood or sipping on its own while watching the sun descend over the horizon.
Waitrose Wine Direct £5.69 or £68.28 for a case of 12.

La Vieille Ferme Blanc 2010 costs about a pound more than the others and tastes more substantial, with some interesting complexity – toothsome citrus and white peach fruit, nutty and gently creamy. You're still getting a lot of a wine for the price. Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Roussanne from the Luberon go into this wine produced by the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe. La Vieille Ferme Rouge is also well worth looking out for.
Waitrose Wine Direct £6.64 or £79.68 for a case of 12.

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