The late Alan Watkins, in whose memory we enjoyed a commemorative lunch at the Garrick Club the other day, was for a spell the wine correspondent of the Observer. He wrote almost exclusively about French wines. I used to chide him gently, pointing out that there were marvellous wines from the New World. He would shake his head, and say that, yes, some were all very well, even quite good. But you couldn’t drink them every day. And in the case of some, you couldn’t drink more than a single glass at a time.
French wines, he implied, had a finesse, a degree of class, a touch of steel. To extrapolate, Aussie wines, for instance, were like a new acquaintance who seems incredibly friendly but quickly becomes wearing. Whereas the French wines may be slightly distant, but when you get to know them prove to be more agreeable over time.
I myself am in both camps, if that’s possible. French wines are now fifth among bottles sold in the off-trade in this country, behind Australia, Italy, America (mostly cheap blends) and even South Africa. So there’s no doubt where British taste is headed. On the other hand, the very proliferation of chunky, richly flavoured, in-your-face wines makes many people yearn for the greater discretion, the quieter virtues, of French wines.
If that’s you, here’s your chance. Our merchant this week is Yapp Brothers of Mere, Wilts, and all the choices have been personally selected from small properties in France. There is no mass-produced supermarket stuff here at all.
First up is a delectable Viognier from the Ardèche 2009 (1). Viognier is a grape that almost disappeared, then became wildly fashionable in the ‘anything but Chardonnay’ era which, thankfully, seems to be passing. It can be a bit flabby, but at its best is luscious and almost perfumed. This also has a slight touch of flintiness, which helps set off the tropical fruit flavours. Thoroughly recommended down from £8.95 to £8.50 a bottle. As is the Vouvray Sec 2008 (2). This is made by Jean-Claude and Didier Aubert from the Chenin grape and it is just lovely. In some hands, Chenin blanc can be thin and weedy, but this is plump and rich while being absolutely dry. Gorgeous as an aperitif, but also perfect for drinking with food. Reduced to £9.95.
Our last white is also from the Loire, and it’s been a huge favourite of mine since I spent a blissful weekend at a country hotel near Bourges, in the heart of this little-known appellation. We drank nothing else, and didn’t feel the need for anything else. Menetou-Salon is next to Sancerre, though is much smaller, and being less well known is obliged to charge somewhat less for its wines. I think they are every bit as good, and sometimes better. As New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come to resemble the Loire versions, so the French are creating a deeper and more toothsome style. You will very much like this 2009 (3) which is at a very decent price of £11.50.
Now for the reds. As I never tire of reminding you, the best-value French wines are now being made in the south of the country. They are frequently of a standard most Bordelais never attain, and generally cost half as much. Take this Minervois ‘Tradition’ from Domaine Le Cazal 2009 (4). It simply knocked me out when I took the first sip. It is deep, dark, velvety, yet fresh enough to make your taste buds leap up and stand to attention. I think this is a fabulous wine, at a very agreeable price of £8.50. For those who do like a decent claret, there is the Ch. Peychaud from the Côtes de Bourg 2008 (5). At £8.95 Yapps are not giving it away, but it is extremely good. At the risk of repeating myself — a risk I am always willing to take — it resembles the library of a gentleman’s club, with leather, cedar, and a lingering whiff of cigar smoke.
Finally, Pascal Frères’ Gigondas 1999 (6) marks a rare opportunity to buy a really mature southern Rhone wine for an exceptional price of £12.50. This is the closest France comes to antipodean blockbusters, yet it too has that elegance along with the power. If there were a French word for ‘bonzer’, this would fit it.
Delivery as always is free, and there is a sample case containing two of each wine.