I am currently working on a book about how during the last few decades French wine-makers have set about rebuilding the reputation of their respective wine regions after many years of what could be regarded as complacency in the face of the developing international wine regions. Of course the finest of French wines have retained an enviable status but the commonly held assumption that in general French wines are generally better than other wines is a belief that has been eroded over the last thirty years.
Whilst to suggest that things have come full circle is inaccurate I feel it fair to say that now many wine-makers in France have at last reasserted their position of being regarded as fine wine producers which not so long ago was in danger of being undermined by foreign competition. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Burgundybut there are also growers dedicated to making great wine that captures their local terroir in regions that were once regarded as capable of producing only modest wines to say the least. If the New World has learnt from France it’s now fair to say that there are French wine-makers who have taken note of what the New World can produce and who have realised the full potential of their own vineyards in France. In the end it comes down to the passion and dedication of the individual to achieve the best with what he or she has.
It has been close on thirty years since I first travelled through France visiting the vineyards of the Loire, Bordeaux, Rhone, Maconnais, Beaujolais, Burgundy and Chablis. Every year since then I have tasted hundreds of wines and as the years have gone by I felt France was losing ground to the other countries where dynamic wine-makers were developing new vineyards and pushing standards higher year on year. Finally and it is impossible to fix a date for when the turn around came, France has re-affirmed its ability to make a truly stunning range of fine wines and this renaissance has come from a diverse range of wine-makers.
There has also in the last thirty years been a development across the wine world of bio-dynamic viticulture. Figures like Eloi Durrbach in the far south and Nicolas Joly in the north of France have championed bio-dynamic wine-making and there are now bio-dynamic vineyards everywhere from Chile to New Zealand. Whilst bio-dynamic viticulture is something that could be regarded as no more than subtle marketing spin by the sceptic or pure mumbo-jumbo by others the facts are there are more and more wine-makers all around the world embracing bio-dynamic wine practices quite simply because they feel this enables them to make better tasting wine. They must also surely have the pleasure in knowing that they are handing on healthy vineyards to the next generation rather than vineyards that are drenched in chemicals and where the soil is in truth just one step from becoming as lifeless as a desert.
Over the last thirty years I have kept tasting notes of the wines I have tried whilst I have been commercial wine buying and this book is a look back at the wines from around the world which have caught my attention and which I believe are fine wines although some thankfully do not carry the price tags associated with great wines which are now sadly over-priced since becoming investment commodities.
I’m writing this book from a personal perspective so it is also a window on how my appreciation and understanding for fine wine has evolved and it is intended for the enthusiastic wine drinker. I have no time for the pretentious side to fine wine evaluation and I make no apolgoies for believing that fine wines with hefty price tags should stand or fall on the pleasure the wine gives rather than the pedigree on the label that the bottle carries.
An excerpt from my early days of wine discovery follows:-
Being the son of restaurant owners and living above the shop I grew up assuming certain things were quite normal: I decided that crème de cassis made better Ribena than Ribena and as it was always to hand it became standard. Cooking myself a mixed grill under a salamander grill before heading off to school was simply common sense. Extra pocket money came with helping out in the restaurant; washing up, then for more cash preparing vegetables, later jointing chickens, guinea fowl and in due course sides of beef on the bone all translated into an ever expanding Hornby railway, more ranks of Airfix soldiers and massed formations of Panzers. I leant to taste the difference between sole and plaice and Burgundy and Bordeaux before I’d done my O-levels and before I had done my A-levels I knew why Chateau Calon Segur was worth more than Chateau Phelan Segur. On days when the restaurant was closed we feasted on leftovers: fillet steak toasted sandwiches for Sunday brunch; Dover sole for lunch, maybe duck for dinner. And a bottle of wine was always on the table.
One Sunday my dad and I came back after a morning of walking the whippet to the welcoming smell of stew. We breezed into the kitchen, dad with the Sunday papers under his arm and me with a Commando comic magazine tightly rolled into a make-shift dagger in case of ambush. We both noticed amongst the debris on the kitchen side from mum’s labours an opened bottle of wine and the sunlight slanting in through the window showed the remaining wine level at about two or three inches. Dad always thought it sensible to keep a small wine rack with a dozen bottles at home. Now he glanced at the bottle, glanced at the rack, eyed the stew, looked at my mum and then stared disbelievingly at the bottle. I remember thinking it had a very plain looking label. He made a noise; a sort of faint noise that was half gulp, half choke and then another noise that I suppose was an attempt at the word “no”.
So never judge a wine by its label: Chambertin Clos de Beze 1964 does not need a flashy label to proclaim it one of the greatest of Burgundies; indeed one of the greatest red wines in the world. Mum had needed something red for the stew and her logic was the plainer the label then the plainer the wine, which I suppose does have a certain logic.
Whilst dad poured himself a large Cutty Sark to drown his sorrow I poured myself a glass of what was left. One of my current favourite military leaders was Napoleon and taking my first mouthful of that wine I found out that I had something in common with the great Bonaparte: his favourite wine too was Chambertin.