There must be some very long faces on the other side of the Channel at the moment. The French have always suspected we were a treacherous bunch, but they’ve just received a poke with a sharp stick to the vinous nether regions. Gallic wine sales in the UK have been tumbling for the past 20 years, but the news that France, once the largest exporter to these shores, has slipped behind Australia, the United States, Italy and now South Africa will have producers gnawing their knuckles in frustration.
However bad the overall picture may be, France still dominates the world of fine wine. The stuff that sells at auction and that has collectors salivating into their silver spittoons invariably comes from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley or, at a pinch, the Loire or Champagne. These blue-chip wines may only account for a tiny percentage of French sales, but they are essential for prestige and maintaining what’s left of France’s bedraggled image.
How good are they? In one sense, the answer is irrelevant. Many of the best French wines are bought as an investment these days, not as something to drink. Fine wine is traded across the world like stocks and shares. Even if you’ve never tasted the wine it isn’t hard to work out that, say, Château Lafite or the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche will go up in price, especially from a very good vintage such as 2005. All you have to do is get hold of a few bottles…
Yet in another sense the answer does matter. For those of us who like pulling corks, as opposed to stroking portfolios, it’s important to know if the best French wines are truly worth the money. If prestige is all that matters to you stop reading. But if you’re interested in comparative wine quality, I’d like to share a secret with you. Unless you are drinking a truly great French wine, you can drink just as well (and more cheaply) from elsewhere. It’s just that the public perception hasn’t caught up with reality.
A mate of mine does regular “David versus Goliath” blind tastings, pitting (almost exclusively French) wines with worldwide reputations against supposedly lesser bottles. More often than not, the wines with the slingshots overcome the giants. His punters are frequently alarmed to realise they’ve spent lots of money on something that isn’t as exciting as it should be; worse, they realise they could have bought more enjoyable wines at cheaper prices.
If you leave aside Champagne, which has no serious rivals at the top end, I think you can find very good alternatives to pricey red Bordeaux, Sauternes, red and white Burgundy, northern Rhône Syrah and Châteauneuf du Pape in other countries, and sometimes within France itself. However depressing it may be for the French, the rest of the world has caught up with its classic regions.
TASTE ONE OF THE FOLLOWING AGAINST A CLASSIC
1 2007 Philip Shaw No 17 Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon, Orange (£14.99, 14%, Oddbins). Elegant, fragrant, capsicum-scented; sourced from the cool climate region of Orange in New South Wales.
2 1990 Villa di Monte Vin Santo, Chianti Rufina (£14.99 per half, 17%, M&S). Sweet, honey, date and fig-like; a mature Tuscan sticky that lasts for minutes on the palate.
3 2008 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough (£37.99, stockists 020 7720 5350). Stylish, savoury, structured. Widely regarded as one of the two best Pinot Noirs in New Zealand.
4 2008 Saint Véran, Domaine Thibert Père et Fils (£12.99, 13%, Majestic). Fresh, ripe, stylishly oaked; a white Burgundy that outperforms a lot of Puligny-Montrachets.
5 2007 Tabali Reserve Syrah, Limarí Valley (£9.99, 14%, www.henningswine.co.uk). Smoky and spicy; produced in one of Chile’s most exciting new coastal areas.
6 2007 Vacqueyras, Les Aubes, Domaine Santa Duc (£14.25, 15%, Berry Brothers, 0800 280 2440). Funky and peppery — a mini Châteauneuf with real class.
Originally published in Observer Food Monthly