Is France still the greatest wine producing country in the world?
Still King of the Côte?
The wines of France, in particular Burgundy, Bordeaux & Champagne are the most expensive and sought after on the planet. This was highlighted in an article by the web site www.winesearcher.com that listed the world’s 50 most expensive wines, 44 of which are from the aforementioned French regions. Only three new world wines are listed, Screaming Eagle (U.S.A) at 13th , Seppeltsfield Para 100yr old Tawny (Australia) at 32nd and Schrader Cellars (U.S.A) at 45th.
If we are to assume that what someone is willing to pay for a wine is indicative of that wines quality (as has been the case in the past) France and the region of Burgundy in particular clearly produce the greatest wines on the planet (36 of the top 50 are from the Cote d’Or).
Quality is not always reflected by a high price though and many would argue that these are either trophy wines to be consumed for all to see as a show of wealth (Pétrus) or bought purely for investment purposes (Lafite). This may be the case for Bordeaux, a region that produces huge amounts of fine wine now traded like stocks and shares, with a clear and relatively easy to understand classification (if rather large) more branded and flashy. Burgundy is a different kettle of fish, much smaller and more intricate with a focus on terroir, less flashy and more honest and down to earth, wines that are generally made by artisan producers often with very little intervention in the winery. These seem to be more honest wines, often made in tiny quantities for people to drink rather than invest in (though many do), in my experience they can be the most ethereal and amazingly intricate wines that are like nothing else on the planet, after trying them price can to point become inconsequential.
New world wines are literally from the new world, regions outside of Europe, the most important of which are; Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa & the United States. The biggest boost to their reputation on the world stage was probably a famous tasting held in 1976 in Paris by Stephen Spurrier known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’ where top American and French wines where tasted blind by a panel of French Judges. The American wines were judged to have won, and when this became widely publicized around the world, lead to increased interest in the potential of new regions around the world for the production of quality wine. Each of these countries has its own story that I won’t go into here but they have all made huge advances over the past 3 or 4 decades and are often ranked above top French wines at blind tastings.
New World Icons
There have been many tastings over the years that have pitted some of France’s finest wines against those from all over the world and highlight that new world wines costing a fraction of the price are as good if not better than Frances best efforts. There are many factors that come in to the outcome of these tastings though, one of which is the ability to age with France having the upper hand with a far longer track record compared to new world vineyards that may have only been in production for a few decades, only time in the cellar will tell whether these iconic wines (especially those from South American countries, have the same aging potential. Current results are looking promising though and wines across the board are more approachable in their youth as drinkers are in the main not prepared to wait 20+ years to enjoy their favourite wines.
Shifting Focus (Terroir Vs. Varietal)
A huge difference that is clear to see as soon as you start to compare bottles from the new and old world is to be found on the wines label. Classic European wines will in general focus on the location that the wine was made or it’s ‘terroir’, which does not have an exact English translation but basically equates to the vineyards climate, aspect and most importantly what’s going on below the surface, its soil. This makes things rather hard for the uninitiated consumer as there is usually no mention of the grape variety the wine is made from. New world wines will almost always clearly state the grape variety as well as the location, if not the actual vineyard or plot but this is becoming more common.
This has had the effect of making new world wines more approachable with grape varieties acting almost as brand names that consumers can relate to (think Pinot Grigio or Cabernet Sauvignon) from past experience and a broader more basic knowledge of wine or their own preferences. Different countries often have different names for the same grape varieties for example in Syrah is used in France, Shiraz in Australia they are the same grape but due to differences in style through winemaking and climate can produce very different wines. Syrah is often softer and more elegant and spiced with Shiraz being more powerful with big richer black fruit flavours. This difference in label information has made new world wines increasingly popular and more accessible, especially if you are looking for a wine that does not break the bank to go with your dinner tonight.
Proof is in the pudding!
It’s pretty clear that France rules the roost at the top end of the wine market even though there are amazing and truly iconic wines being made in the new world, but what about more affordable wines that you would share with friends over dinner?
The following tasting was held over a four week period by West London Wine School and pitted five of Frances major wine producing area’s against their new world counterparts, I have included both my preferences and tasting notes as well as the results of a poll that was taken at the end of each night on the preference of the other attendees (20 consumers of mixed experience). Read on to see who emerged victorious!
Week One Burgundy Vs.
Domaine William Fevre Chablis 2008
£14.99 The Wine Society
light, green apple and lemon fruit intermingles with a loamy, limestone minerality on the nose with sweet clementine also showing and secondary notes of white flowers. Delicate and balanced.
High acidity but a balanced body with racy acidity showing mainly on the length, green apple fruit (very long lasting on the length) with subtle minerality on the mid palate and into the length.
Morgon Metallico Chardonnay, Monterey, California 2010
Much fuller and riper fruit here, ripe pear and white peach even edging slightly into light tropical fruits such as honeydew melon with light caramel edge, a rather polished affair.
Dissipates very quickly on the front palate seeming overly light but quickly expands on the mid palate with well structured, riper lemon & grapefruit. Alcohol & acidity battle it out on the length drowning out the fruit with the alcohol coming out on top.
Blow by blow
The elegance and continuity of Chablis clearly takes this round with the Morgon putting up a good fight with well structured fruit but falling with its off balance alcohol.
Round One winner – FRANCE
Nicolas Potel Domaine de Bellene, Saint-Romain Vieilles Vignes, Burgundy, 2008
£16.95 Solent Cellar, Berry Bros & Rudd
A very pronounced nose that smells like what you’d get if you crushed limestone rocks and mixed them with concentrated peach and apple juice. Smoky with a pleasing lick of sulphur that actually adds complexity but edging too far into polished old furniture territory.
Pleasing acidity all the way through the palate but generally lacking in fruit which feels constrained by the wines oak which dry’s and dominates its length.
McWilliams Mount Pleasant Isabelle Chardonnay, Tumbarumba, South Australia, 2010
Tighter wound, very enticing ripe, light stone and tropical fruit dominates this nose rather than oak formed intensity. Not overly done and although ripe this has elegance.
Palate follows on well from the nose with pleasing citrus and stone fruits with a good vein of acidity running through the wine. Alcohol is held in check but this lacks any real depth or length. Pleasing but rather straight forward.
Blow by blow
This round was hotly contested but there was a clear consensus that the Australian wine showed more restraint than the overly oaked and lacking in fruit Saint-Romain.
Round two winner NEW WORLD (Australia)
Louis Jadot, Clos du Roy, Marsannay Rouge, Burgundy 2009
£19.99 Fine + Rare
Elegant and enveloping sweet red berry fruit, cherry dominant with a hint of sweet spice & ginger, wonderful!
Finely strung, flighty tannin with very pleasing acidity backing up more sour cherry notes.
Tannins slowly draw the mouth in with very pleasing bitter red cranberry and redcurrant fruit. Succulent and well balanced.
A very pleasing wine all round.
Invivo Pinot Noir, Central Otago, New Zealand 2010
Rather intense black fruit, morello cherry and stewed blackcurrant leaning into medicinal, melted liquorice and Chinese spice. Broad, velvety and indulgent with very concentrated fruit.
The palate is a lot more compact than the nose suggests, tannins are tight and bitter and acidity present but restrained. Black fruit is concentrated and rather tart.
The nose is opening up on this baby but palate is still tightly coiled and is going to take some time to open up but shows great promise.
Blow by blow
Two great wines but a clear, hands down winner (and the first time a wine has won by unanimous vote in one of these Vs. tastings).
Round Three winner (by K.O)
They may have won the battle but the war is far from over.
2-1 to France
Week Two Bordeaux Vs.
Chateau Argadens Blanc 2010, Bordeaux
Sauvignon Blanc 65%, Semillon 35%, £8.95 Wine Society
Clean cut apple and lime fruit on the nose with an interesting mix of creamy, cereal notes and cut grass herbaceous character.
Well balanced and quite rounded in the mouth with fleshy peach and sweet apple fruit, has richness but is still lifted on the palate. Fruit really lingers on the palate.
Secano Estate Sauvignon Gris 2010, Leyda Valley, Chile
Very clean nose with green pepper, snap peas, ripe buttered asparagus and lime but with a smokey mineral note.
Slight touch of residual sugar hides the high acidity on the front palate, widens on the mid palate with sweet lime mojhito notes that linger on the length and then fresh lime acidity rushes through on the length followed by wet stone minerality.
Blow by blow
This is quite a hard one to call, both wines are of a very high standard, personally I prefer the Argadens as it just feels more fluent and balanced. The Secano has some amazing characteristics but just feels too on edge, better individual parts but as a whole less enjoyable.
Round One – FRANCE
Château Talbot, St.Julien 2003
£47.08 Fine + Rare
A complex mix of fresh and dried black & red berry fruits with a rich tobacco leaf and cigar box note but still has a sweet spice edge to it, very charming and open with great depth, very impressive!
Palate does not disappoint, if anything it improves on the nose. Soft but full, spicy, plummy fruit mixes with spice, damson and sweet black cherry. Nothing sticks out, tannin & acidity seem to be in-line making this highly enjoyable all the way through the palate.
Errazuriz Don Maximiano Founders Reserve 2007, Aconcagua Valley, Chile
(Bordeaux blend with Syrah)
Incredibly concentrated sweet cassis & blueberry fruit, very compact and powerful, deep mocha mixes with exotic cinnamon stick spice. This is a rather huge nose that could do with plenty more time in the bottle to calm down a bit as it is almost showing ‘rubberised’ notes that you tend to find in over baked Aussie & SA reds. There is lots to like here in you like concentrated liquor fruit and plenty of vanilla
The palate is a lot more approachable than the nose and has more balance than you would think. The fruit is dense and well spiced with drying tannin felt on the mid palate and length, this is a bit of a bruiser but feels restrained at the moment and like it needs to be left alone for quite a few years to really open up. It is drinkable now but really would benefit from a good quality steak!
Blow by blow
A much easier round to call, the Talbot just has so much more complexity and class compared with the Maximiano that has some lovely super sweet fruit and would mainly stand out with a rich steak. Maybe would have been fairer to try these wines at a similar age but I would still imagine that the Talbot would come out on top. Another thing that lets the Don down is an over abundance of alcohol, that dominates the length.
Round two – FRANCE
Château Laville 2006, Sauternes
£31.08 Wine Direct
This has an intense smoked honey, ginger, spiced tropical fruit and intense marmalade & pronounced botrytis notes. There is something in the nose on this wine that I find rather off putting though a bit of a mix of super intense vanilla and furniture polish or burnt match (maybe a touch too much sulphur?).
The palate is more approachable, refined with richly textured tropical fruit and marmalade, very unctuous all the way through the palate, could maybe do with a bit more acidity.
Klein Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ 2006, South Africa
Muscat de Frontignan
£28.99 (50cl) sawinesonline.co.uk
More delicate on the nose than the Sauternes softer honey and heather notes and better structured fruit, immensely enjoyable nose.
Great richness right from the off with delicate spice on the length, ripe tropical and stone fruit is rich but not over powering and the delicate floral notes linger in the mouth.
An immensely pleasurable wine!
Blow by blow
Both wines give a huge amount of pleasure on the palate but the Constance has a consistency all the way through with beautiful floral spice notes on the nose and in the mouth. The Leoville may need considerable decanting as I really did not find the nose to be fully clean.
Round 3 – NEW WORLD (South Africa)
Again, it’s 2-1 to France bringing the total to….
4-2 to France
Week Three Loire Vs.
Champteloup Rosé d’ Anjou 2010, Loire, France
A rather light strawberry pink colour.
Rather firm red berry fruit, a sweet, herbaceous notes but very approachable and summer’y.
The palate is light but with some flesh to it, good balance and fresh, strawberry & summer fruit that suits the residual sugar felt on the length.
Secano Estate Rosé Pinot Noir 2010, Leyda, Chile
Deeper colour on this one.
The nose has more intense red fruit, darker, leaning more towards cherry and even some black berry fruits and earth.
Palate has a lot more punch with slight, bitter tannin leading to bitter red apple & berry fruit. Not as balanced and with a more prevailing lick of alcohol on the end.
Blow by blow
I’m not the biggest rosé nut but would happily sup a bottle of the Champteloup quite happily on a hot summer day (preferably in the garden!). Rather disappointed with the Secano but would probably go well with a summer salad.
Round One – France! (Again)
Fournier Pere et Fils, Pouilly-Fume 2009, Loire, France
Stone minerality jumps out on this one with a nice mix of green apple and softer melon fruit.
Rather full-on acidity that dominates the palate with fresh lime & grapefruit juice with a slight sweetness on the length that manages to pull the palate together.
Invivo Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough, New Zealand
The nose on this has more depth than you would usually find in NZ Sav Blanc, gooseberry fruit but not obvious, herbal but not grassy, more green cooking herbs.
This has a more powerful character but similar citrus and gooseberry fruit. Better overall balance although it lacks the mineral notes of the previous wine, overall it is a more enjoyable, expressive wine.
Blow by blow
The Pouilly-Fume had plenty going for it but only just seemed to hold the sum of its parts together. The Invivo was a far slicker beast, close but I think Invivo paid more attention in both the Vineyard & winery.
Winner – New World (New Zealand)
Domaine Huet ‘Le Mont’ Sec 2005, Vouvray, Loire, France, £21.50
On the nose this has the unmistakable bruised/cooked apple concentrate/peel nose with a very slight oxidative edge that lends a slightly nutty note along with some minerality, very complex!
Super refreshing but balanced palate , mineral fresh green apple peel fruit but with a layered depth that is supremely drinkable, beguiling and elegant with a mineral dominant length.
Lammershoek, LAM, 2011 Viognier, Chenin
Spiced mango’s, caramelised brown sugar, honey, dare i say crème brûlée! Incredibly sweet, you don’t expect this from a dry white, this smells more like a Sauternes, very pronounced!
Very high acidity here but backed up with some Tropical fruit, a real oddity and a bit too aggressive on the length.
Blow by blow
The Huet has so much class that although I did find the Lam very enjoyable it just felt a little like mutton dressed up as lamb or like meeting a mate down the pub who is half dressed up as a woman or has doused himself in his girlfriends perfume (he smells nice but mate….come on!).
I’d rather have one Huet to 2 Lam, such a classy drop.
Round 3 winner – France
Les Neviéres, Saumur, Loire, France 2010
Cabernet Franc £7.99 Waitrose
Blackcurrant and plum spiced fruit & garrigue herbs with bitter liquorice , firm, classy and not over the top or showy.
Succulent bitter red fruit with good structure maybe a little austere and bitter on the length but with some lovely, long, bitter cherry on the length.
Viña Chocalan Reserva 2010, Maipo, Chile
Cabernet Franc, £11.99
This has an ultra super concentrated jammy black fruit nose that is so over the top at first it reminded me a bit of turpentine! It eventually calms down with time in the glass and shows melted liquorice, coffee and intense violets.
The palate is jaw clench-ingly tannic with straightforward black bitter fruit that continues on to the length, pretty straight forward and rather unimpressive.
Blow by blow
This was really cut and dry for me, I much preferred the Les Neviéres which was softer and more delicate with a great deal better balance. The Viña Chocalan was so over done on the nose that at first it smelt faulty and only became enjoyable after a few hours in the glass, far too much wine making here, not enough fruit but surprisingly this won the popular vote! (The first time in this series of tastings that I have strongly disagreed with general consensus).
Round 4 winner – New World (Chile)
(France for me though!)
France 2 – New World 2
3-1 (if you ask me!)
Week Four Rhone & Alsace Vs.
Cave de Hunawihr Riesling Reserve 2009, Alsace, France
£10.95 from Fine Wine Company
Pale straw in colour with a green tint.
Very clean on the nose with light lime citrus notes and a chalky minerality backed up by sweeter lemon sorbet.
Very refreshing and balanced front palate with mineral notes pushing through on the mid palate, on the length this is joined with mouth watering lemon & lime fruit reminiscent of lemon drop boiled sweets.
Plantagenet Riesling, Mount Barker 2010, Western Australia
£13.99 from The Wine Society/Slurp
Very similar in colour.
Showing more mealy, lee’sy notes with a hint of kerosene but dominated by lime peel. A fuller more rounded style.
The palate seems a lot looser and lacks the finesse of the Alsatian Riesling but has more up front and complex fruit that includes citrus, bitter apple and ripe grapefruit.
A more voluptuous, laid back style that maybe easier to approach but lacks balance and finely tuned acidity.
Blow by blow
Although the Plantagenet has a better spectrum of fruit on the palate it lacks elegance and has rather floppy acidity making a less enjoyable & accomplish wine.
Round one – FRANCE
David Raynaud, Crozes-Hermitage 2010, Rhone, France (Syrah)
£17.99 from Secret Cellar
Deep ruby in colour.
Good complexity on the nose with meaty notes mixing with saddle leather, garrigue herbs, crushed black berries, violets and bitter liquorice.
Lifting acidity but bitter tannin back up stern black cherry fruit with herbaceous notes coming through on the length, though bitter tannins are a bit over dominant.
Grant Burge ‘Miambi’ 2008 Barossa Shiraz, Australia
£14.99 from Hailsham Cellars
The nose is full of sweet black fruit, mint, eucalypt & medicinal notes. Very enticing but more straight forward than the Reynaud.
On the palate the deep blackcurrant & plum fruit continues and is kept fresh rather than overly sweet by a good a healthy amount of acidity, sweet black fruit lingers on the length.
Blow by blow
Two very different wines and this bout highlights the stylistic differences between Syrah & Shiraz. I would usually go with the Crozes as they tend to be more complex, and food friendly but in a straight head to head the Shiraz is the crowd pleaser.
Round Two – NEW WORLD (Australia)
Chapoutier ‘La Bernardine’ Chateauneuf-du-pape 2007, Southern Rhone, France
£26.99 from Berry Bros.
This has a soft, hedonistic nose full of sweetly spiced (kola nut) garrigue red berry fruit.
Very succulent mouthfeel with delicate tannin that has a slight bitterness on the length and restrained acidity that leads to some great red berry/cherry fruit, a dangerously drinkable wine!
d’Arenberg, The Ironstone Pressings 2007, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Grenache, Shiraz, Mouvedre
£27 from Majestic
This GSM blend has more concentration than the Bernadine due to the extra grapes in the end especially the Mourvedre (which should help this age well due to the higher tannins). Similar spice but leaning more cinnamon and sweeter, darker, richer black fruits.
The mouthfeel is more voluptuous and aggressive but the tannin and acidity bounce off each other well with that rich, chewy black fruit following through on the mid palate and length.
Blow by blow
A closely contested match and if I’m honest, if it was just a glass I may go for the Ironstone’s rich, power. The Bernadine is just so well put together and enveloping, you just can’t say no!
Round Three – FRANCE
Week Four – The Final! Alsace & Rhone Valley Vs.
The final wines of this series of tastings where done blind to add an extra dimension to the tasting and strip away any pre conceptions.
D’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab 2008, McLaren Vale, South Australia
£11.25 from Slurp
On the nose this was somewhat restrained,(especially when placed next to the Saint-Peray) showing pear and peach fruit backed up with subtle white flowers and orange blossom notes.
The palate is a good mix of citrus & stone fruit with some melon notes and a spicy, nuttiness on the length.
Saint-Peray 2009, Les Vins De Vienne
£13.99 from Waitrose
Much deeper in colour and incredibly forward on the nose showing fleshy peach, melon and confected tropical fruit, this is more exotic with bruised apple and Turkish delight also coming through.
Very rounded in the mouth but lacking in acidity and any real structure other than gentle spiced peach, melon and pear fruit. A very gushing wine that probably should have been drunk a year ago!
Blow by blow
When I first tasted these wines I was sure that the complete lack of acidity in the second one hinted at an over blown new world wine and the fresh fruit and acidity in the first was from France (how wrong was I!). This round was a no brainer with the Hermit crab coming through with a technical knockout; the Saint-Peray is just way too over the top and flabby with a glass jaw!
Winner – France
That makes it France 2, New world 2
And the overall winner is….FRANCE!
This result actually surprised me a little as I would have said new world would have triumphed at the start, but France really has stepped up to the plate here and shown that it can make fantastic wines at all price points. It has to be said this was a slim victory though and all the wines where of a high standard.
We shall have to have a rematch soon and maybe look at more iconic wines to see how the land lies when you dig a bit deeper for that special bottle!