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Fostering a French bouquet

Jane Anson looks ahead to the coming year and discovers that, after playing something of a second fiddle of late to the new-world upstarts, French wine is very much back on the menu

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Bruce Forsyth knows it. Tony Bennett knows it. Even Noel Edmonds knows it. If you hang around for long enough, you might fall out of favour for a while, but eventually, as if by magic, you’ll become fashionable again. And I think it might be time for the French to feel the effect of this rule.

We’ve had the love affair with French wine, then the very public fall from grace (and let’s not pretend that it wasn’t personal – the accusations included arrogant wine makers, unwilling to listen to market forces, with unintelligible labels and a mountain of incomprehensible appellations. Did I forget anything? Oh yes, highly unreliable quality and enormously expensive compared to the saintly, consumer-first new world producers. Talk about familiarity breeding contempt).

But France seems to be staging something of a come-back. There I was, planning which wines to include in my recommended list for 2007, and I just kept coming back to France. Thinking I was being biased because I live there, I called friends back in the UK who are sommeliers, wine journalists – or just enthusiastic drinkers. I got a lot of very similar responses. ‘Less crazy alcohol levels’, ‘fewer brands’, ‘finally responding to criticism’. And the figures bear this out; Bordeaux has reported growth of 24 percent in the value of its exports, and Burgundy 23 percent – and the same story goes for Cotes de Rhone and Cotes de Gascogne…

So maybe, after the trial separation, it’s time to give France another go. Personally, if I want chardonnay this year, I’ll try a Chablis, if I want merlot or cabernet sauvignon, I’ll try a Bordeaux, and if I want Riesling… well, I’ve always gone for Alsace. It’s also worth knowing about a venture that has just been launched by Esme Johnson, founder of Majestic Wine Warehouse. He is selling almost entirely French wines direct from producers for an average of 20 percent less than you will find in shops – meaning you don’t need to go to your local supermarket for bargains.

Alsace Riesling from Fernand Engel
Silberberg Rorschwihr Riesling 2005 (approx £12)

Germany’s most famous grape but it’s always the ones from Alsace that seem to end up on my table. They tend to have less residual sugar, but stay packed with those wonderful mineral, pear and peach aromas that make riesling such a good food wine. Engel has a wide range that are often outstanding, from his luscious late harvest styles to the perfectly dry Reserve range, and his deft touch always makes them deliciously approachable (but don’t forget that rieslings can keep, and improve with age). The Silberberg is grown on chalky soils, and is full of white pear and crisp minerality – but look out also for Clos des Anges, which is pretty unbeatable for the price. If these wines were in Strictly Come Dancing, they would do a tap dance rather than a waltz.

Beaujolais Gamay from Domaine Piron
Domaine Piron, Cotes de Py 2005, (£8.99)

If any of the wines here can show us the truth of the Noel Edmonds effect, it’s Beaujolais. It’s definitely had its fair share of unfashionable years, but there is widespread recognition that its winemakers have started seriously raising quality – to the point now where you can find wonderful bottles like these fairly easily. You want to go to the bigger villages – Morgon, Moulin a Vent, Brouilly – and find wine makers who are looking for lower acidity and who practice longer macerations that extract more colour, and more flavour. But still the point of Beaujolais is fruit, and Piron never forgets that. The Cote de Py vineyard is one of Morgon’s best plots of land, and it translates here into starry-eyed cherry flavours, panting for approval. It’s hard to say no.  

Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon from Clos de Jaugeyron
Clos de Jaugeron Haut Medoc 2004 (approx £15)

Wine maker Michel Theron was named one of Bordeaux’s most exciting producers’ by the Revue des Vins de France this year, and his wines are undeniably sought after. He’s owned this tiny estate since 1993, and produces just over 100 cases each year from 40 acres of vines in the Margaux and Haut Medoc appellations – partly from vines that are more than 100 years old. Both are worth tracking down for their intensity of fruit and a structure that you could almost climb up (there’s a swagger to this Haut Medoc that will definitely cheer up any cold January nights).

Cahors Malbec from Les Laquets
Les Laquets 2004 (approx £18)

Made in very small quantities, so not always easy to get hold of outside France, Mathieu Cosse and Catherine Maisonneuve are part of that band of winemakers who are putting Cahors very firmly back on the map. To ensure perfect concentration, they keep their yields low, and make very small quantities of wine (Les Laquets comes from a 5.6 hectare parcel of land, which is boutique in anyone’s book). The vines are treated without the use of any chemical herbicides or pesticides, the results are impressive, inky rich colours, and a succulent taste full of black cherries and warming herbs and spices.

Chablis Chardonnay from La Moutonne
Moutonne (£40)

One of the reference estates in Chablis, La Moutonne is owned by negociant Albert Bichot; and is reputed to be the location where the Chablis Kimmeridgian soil is at its finest.  And French chardonnay doesn’t get much better than this… while terroir can be a difficult concept to grasp, when it lends this kind of minerality to a wine you can start to see what the fuss is about. The vocabulary here comes tripping off the tongue – flint, steel, slate, lemon, orange blossom… no oak either, just great, great Chablis.

Cotes de Marmandais Cabernet Franc from Clos Baquey
Elian de Ros Clos Baquey 2004  (£16.99)

97 percent of the production from Cotes de Marmandais goes into wine made by the local cooperative cellars. Which makes Elian de Ros something of an anomaly. In fact, it makes him a miracle; a young winemaker who spent five years working with Zind Humbrecht in Alsace, then came back home with a point to prove. Biodynamic practices, no fining or racking, just eminently sensible approach to winemaking, and an enormous helping of confidence that really comes across in his wines. Expect serious wines, nothing like his neighbours one dimensional offerings, and a powerful punch of fruit.

Gigondas Syrah from Domaine de la Tourade (£10.95)
Domaine de la Tourade Font des Aïeux 2004

My desert island wine would very probably be from the Rhone. They’re just so effortless; made for drinking with friends around a heavily-laden table. This one, from up and coming producer André Richard, welcomes you in from the moment you pour it out into the glass – the deep, rich red of southern France, with an enveloping prune and plum nose, and soft round tannins that sneak up on you and mean you almost miss the bite – but it’s there. Sink into it.

And for something completely different.

Jackson Triggs Proprietor’s Grand Reserve Shiraz, Niagra Estates, 2004 (£20)
Named the world’s best in July at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, this is a powerful reminder of how good shiraz (syrah) can be from outside the French borders. I’m an enormous fan of Jackson Triggs wines, and this one is unashamedly crowd-pleasing, full of plums and blackberries. You can almost feel the berries staining your fingers as you pick up the glass.

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