How do you decide what wine to buy? The answer to this will quite likely involve price, particularly if it has the word ‘half’ before it. Perhaps you buy because the label has an animal/flower/tree/chateau (cross out where applicable) on it and for some it’s the favourite country or grape variety that matters most. Would PDO be in this list somewhere? The European Union’s ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ was created to protect the heritage of food and drink. Things like Parma ham fall in this category, as do Stilton cheese and Stornoway Black Pudding for example.
The growth of farmers’ markets, delis and specialist retailers such as Wholefoods has resulted in a surge of interest in locally produced food and drink. We see a massive rise in sales of craft beers, produced by an ever-growing band of microbreweries, but when it comes to wine most of us stick to well-known brands where provenance is of no importance. Price and grape variety is. Part of the issue is that most wine consumers see wine as a natural product anyway. It’s made from fresh grapes so what more do I need to know? The wine trade isn’t really helping matters either. The sheer number of grape varieties, styles and regions lead to confusion over what a wine will actually taste like, leaving most consumers playing it safe and opting for what they know, rather than looking towards their more adventurous sides.
The creation of the PDO is not going to resolve this but it at least attempts to protect producers from imitations that could destroy a good name. What is good wine is subjective. Only you can decide whether you like a wine or not, but I like Susy Atkins’ advice in this video, made for ‘Discover the Origin‘, about exploring the wine world by region. Sticking to smaller producers and finding out where the wine actually comes from. This moves you away from mass-produced wine that delivers only on price. Many of us already do it with beer, so why not take the plunge and discover something new in the world of wine. There are plenty of great stories to uncover.
Back in March I was party to a very interesting discussion among the wine trade which was trying to determine if France’s wine future lay in brands or in its system of ‘appellations’. I wrote about it here.
Now I think the case is pretty clear cut when it comes to famous names, such as Champagne, Chablis and Chateauneuf-du-Pape to name but a few. Those names roll of the tongue easily and almost act like brands in their own right. With some of the lesser-known appellations it may not be so straightforward. Sometimes I feel France’s strength, it’s appellation system, is also its weakness. It is difficult to understand, complex and full of names that give little clue as to what the wine will taste like to the average consumer. And, although it has been getting better, a distinct lack of information on a back label is making the purchase of a bottle a bit of a gamble. Granted, the internet is helping to provide additional information and many people still read the words ‘Appellation Controlée’ on the label and feel reassured the wine will be of good quality. But unless you know the style of the wine from a particular appellation, will you know what it tastes like and more importantly, are you going to like it?
1753 Campuget – Costieres de Nimes 2009
It may be a bit random but I picked up a wine from the lesser known Costieres de Nimes, an appellation that came into being just over 20 years ago and falls somewhere between the Languedoc and the Rhone Valley. Since 2004 it aligns itself with the Rhone Valley to which it owes much of its style. Similar stony soils and Syrah and Grenache as its main grapes means you can compare it to Cotes du Rhone. A look at Chateau Campuget’s website shows they market themselves as part of the Rhone Valley ‘brand’, probably because the Rhone Valley is better known internationally. Shame about that sound file that ‘welcomes’ you to the site. My French isn’t great so it becomes a bit annoying. I would also have wanted a bit more information on the specific wine, my main reason to visit the site. The back label tells me the name ‘1753’ refers to the date on the earliest document found at the Chateau. Nice, but what did the document say? Anyway, the wine is really rather good. Lots of blackberry and plummy flavours and dark chocolate. It gives the wine a nice richness, not too dry, which means you could drink this on its own but it would be much better with a nice meaty stew, which is exactly what I’ll be having tonight.
For many wine drinkers France still leads the way. In a recent survey regular wine drinkers were asked to identify wine regions and seven out of the top 10 were French regions. The only non-French regions mentioned were Rioja (Spain), Chianti (Italy) and the Napa Valley (California). That is pretty telling and taken as a cue by the French that their ‘Appellations’ rock.That may be the case for those that most of us would know, regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne and Chablis for example, which don’t struggle for recognition. But what about Costieres de Nimes or Lirac? Is there value in putting those names on a label or do they end up just confusing the average wine drinker? Would you know what you were drinking if you bought a bottle with one of those names on the label?
The French have long held the belief that the sense of place is crucial to their wines. This concept, referred to as ‘terroir’ is central to the principle of Appellations. A few years ago I witnessed an ‘average wine consumer’ asking a winemaker from Burgundy what grape variety was used to make their red wine. The sense of surprise was followed by a Gallic shrug and then a matter of fact statement along the lines of ‘well…Pinot Noir, of course!’. It may be blatantly obvious to those who are in the know, but many people still don’t realise that Chablis is made from Chardonnay for example. This sums up the idea the French have that the grape variety comes way down the list in terms of importance. For that reason the grape variety often isn’t even mentioned on the label, assuming it is allowed to be on the label. Now consider that the same study concluded that grape variety is a very important cue for the regular wine drinker when buying wine, it seems to me this may be a missed opportunity. Speaking to some French producers earlier this week many of them are trying to find a way to use this information to help the average consumer by making labels easier to understand. One supermarket wine buyer actually called for some of the lesser known Appellations to come together under some sort of umbrella brand to help the wine drinking public.
You may like the mystery that is often attached to these strange names, evoking far-flung places but sometimes it helps just to know what you’re drinking. A votre santé!