To the French it was le gros rouge qui tache. We Brits were less interested in its saturated colour, but equally dismissive in our terminology, referring to it as plonk. But, whatever you called it, Vin de Table was never high on anyone’s list of prestige wines.
But things change. The first thing that went was the term Vin de Table, which was scrapped in favour of Vin de France in 2009. Along with the name change came a change in the rules. Not only were producers to be allowed to mention vintage and grape variety on their labels, they were also to be permitted a whole raft of new viticultural and winemaking freedoms. The headline reason for this relaxation of the often-stifling French wine legislation was to permit the country’s growers to compete with New World producers by allowing them to make trans-regional blends, often using an eclectic selection of grape varieties. But the creation of Vin de France has had another, largely unanticipated, consequence.
A growing number of producers – many of them making wines in small quantities and selling them at fairly high prices – are now labelling at least some of their wines as Vin [sic] de France. In some instances, these producers have little choice in the matter. Regions like Alsace and Bordeaux have no official Vin de Pays category, so wines produced outside the AOP system automatically become Vin de France. This is the case, for instance, with Zind-Humbrecht’s Zind, which contains Chardonnay (a grape not permitted within the AOP Alsace regulations).
‘We tried for years to get Chardonnay allowed into [AOP] Alsace, but it didn’t work,’ says Olivier Zind-Humbrecht MW. ‘It was irritating at the beginning, but now we’re used to it – and so are our customers.’
In other regions, producers can choose between labelling their wines as IGP (Vin de Pays) or Vin de France, although deciding whether to opt for one rather than the other is rarely easy. ‘In the past it was simple,’ says Yves Cuilleron. ‘When you labelled a wine as Vin de Table, you couldn’t mention the grape variety or vintage; now, with Vin de France, you can. Nevertheless, if I decide to label my wine as IGP, I can specify that it comes from the Rhône, which helps customers. But Vin de France (which does not allow for any geographical indication on the labelling) allows me more freedom to include other grapes, set my own yield levels and determine the chemical make-up of the wine.’
The flexibility afforded by Vin de France has been exploited both by boutique producers and by some surprisingly big names. Perhaps the most prestigious property to release a Vin de France is Bordeaux’s Château Palmer. In 2004 (when it was labelled as a Vin de Table), the third growth released the first in a series of Historical XIXth Century wines. The blend (and its name) takes its inspiration from 19th-century attempts to beef up Bordeaux’s wines and blends Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the Château’s vineyards with a dollop of Syrah sourced from a secret vineyard located somewhere between Côte Rôtie and Cornas.
But while some wines are born as Vin de France, and some achieve Vin de France status through decisions made by the winemaker, others have Vin de France thrust upon them due to the vicissitudes of the agrément system. In order to be labelled as an AOP (or, increasingly, as an IGP) a wine must pass a blind tasting. The stated aim of such tastings is to ensure that wines show typicity of terroir, style or grape variety. Any deviation from accepted norms can result in a producer being refused permission to label their wines as either AOP or IGP. For many winemakers – particularly those involved in producing natural wines – the tasting poses a growing challenge, and many have simply decided to opt out of the system altogether.
‘It’s getting more and more difficult to get the agrément for my wines,’ says Jeff Coutelou. ‘I want my wines to have their own personality, and the tasting is all about grape variety rather than terroir. The notion of appellation still has traction in France, but all you have to do is look at the New World to see that appellation is no longer the main key to selling a wine.’
Domaine de la Sénéchalière, Miss Terre 2013 (£16.49, Les Caves de Pyrene, Henri’s of Edinburgh) has a very distinctive streak of minerality on both the nose and the finish. Made from Melon de Bourgogne grown just outside Nantes, it has the grape’s hallmark aromatic restraint, but more weight and roundness on the palate than a typical Muscadet. Pretty, but not especially long. 87 points.
Domaine Ledogar’s Carignan Blanc 2012 (£23, Dynamic Vines) expresses the herbal citrus notes typical of this rare variety. The domaine’s inclination towards minimal intervention results in somewhat oxidative flavours, which are not going to please everyone, but these cannot mask the wine’s incisive drive. The use of old oak barrels for maturation lends a bit of spice and weight. 90 points.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Zind, 2011 (£14.50, The Wine Society). This blend of one-third Auxerrois and two-thirds Chardonnay has real mid-palate richness and weight, with honeyed citrus fruit and a hint of ripe peach. There’s the merest soupçon of residual sugar, nicely balanced by bright acidity. 89 points.
The Faustine Vielles Vignes range from Corsica’s Domaine Comte Abbatucci is consistently on the money. The delicacy of the onion skin colour of the 2013 Rosé (£24, Dynamic Vines) is belied by the punchy palate, which blends fennel, mulberry and redcurrants with a hint of smoke. Crisp acidity and a little bit of grip on the finish. 89 points.
From his base near St Rémy de Provence, Henri Milan crafts wines that combine the ripe fruit of southern France with an unusual degree of poise. His Le Vallon 2009 (£17.50, Dynamic Vines) – a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Mourvèdre matured for a year in old oak – is a complex wine, with notes of earthy florality, cherries in eau de vie and leather. The tannins are gently grippy, the acidity crisp. Should develop well over the next decade. 94 points.
Les Cailloux du Paradis, Racines 2011 (£23.99, Wright’s Food Emporium, Les Caves de Pyrène) is an earthy blend of Côt and Cabernet France. Taut and focused, with fine acidity and crunchy tannins to balance the somewhat earthy red berry and cherry fruit. Nicely balanced. 91 points.
Jeff Coutelou’s Vin des Amis 2013 (£13.95, Roberson) is a blend of 75% Syrah and 25% Grenache. It’s packed with plump, juicy dark cherry and berry fruits, so it’s easy to underestimate how structured and firm this wine really is beneath all that palate-friendly fruit. 90 points.
Yves Cuilleron’s Les Vignes d’à Côté Syrah 2012 (£13.09, Top Selection) isn’t necessarily the world’s most complex wine, but it really delivers in terms of sheer drinking pleasure. Classic Syrah notes of spice, violets and cherries, with savoury notes of dark olives, held in check by taut tannins. Drinking well now. 92 points.
Ludovic Engelvin’s Cru Elles 2013 (£22, Dynamic Vines) is a bright, zesty blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvèdre grown in vineyards close to Nimes. Lots of pure, floral-tinged red fruit reminiscent of a Beaujolais, but slightly chunky, rustic tannins give it a bit more structure. A real vin de soif. 93 points.
Autrement de Lamery 2011 (£20.99, Les Caves de Pyrène) is a good example of a petit château Bordeaux in all but name. The palate teeters along the border of ripeness, with chalky, grippy tannins providing a linear framework for cedary dark and plum berry fruit and a judicious touch of herbaceousness. 89 points.