All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Wine that maketh glad the heart of man....

Particularly the British expat in France, some of whom bear out the view of  Dr.Johnson that few possess the intellectual resources to allow themselves to forego the pleasures of wine as otherwise they would be at a loss to know how to pass the  interval between lunch and supper.

Still, at least they are relaxed about wine...they know what they like and enjoy what they know.

Chez the producers, however, it is a different ball game.

In theory the quality of French wine is maintained by strict regulation, controls and inspections, reflected in the price of the finished product.
The major guarantee is that of the A.O.C. ...the Apellation d'Origine Controllee... which links a product to a geographical area.
The best known example among wines is Champagne....whose producers throw legions of well paid lawyers at any sparkling wine that indicates it is made in the same fashion by using the word 'champagne' on its label.
Thus the labels proclaiming 'Methode Traditionelle'.
The wine that dares not speak its name.

How far the theory stands up in practice is open to question. The wine is blind tasted...but that's before it's bottled and there's many a slip between cup and lip, not to speak of the possibilities of the impossibility of refusing old Jean-Paul's wine as he is your wife's cousin, not to speak of his membership of the ruling party's local branch and his son being the local senator's gopher.

Now, when we think of wine we tend, thanks to tradition and publicity, to think of something that is the product of man's intelligent use of natural resources.
Deep soils are best suited to grain, so shallow, stony, poor soils can be given over to other uses...such as growing vines.
The wines produced from some of these soils can be magnificent...depending on the grape variety and the exposure to warmth.
They can also be total rubbish...

They are all the more likely to be rubbish when a particular A.O.C. becomes fashionable and pressure mounts for land originally outside the A.O.C. limits to be included.
The fate of Chablis and Sancerre, not to speak of Chinon, speaks for the results.

Recently, the growth of interest in 'bio' wines has provided a further complication.
These producers refuse to use the chemical treatments imposed by those running their local A.O.C. committees...worse, they refuse to cough up their contributions to the regional syndicats which take their money and promote the produce of the big firms.
Those who delight in the little ways of France will be entranced to hear that these contributions are described as voluntary and obligatory.
They prefer to sell their wine as 'vin de table'...the lowest rating above industrial alcohol.

Now in my time in France I had come to learn that vin de table could be decidedly drinkable.
In the age of the wine lake - before the European Union gave grants to turn it all into vinegar instead - surplus wine was supposed to be 'stripped' of its character and sold as table wine.
As you can imagine, producers and middlemen did nothing of the sort, so batches of 'vin de table' would arrive on the shelves from all over the place - in my area mostly from Italy via bottlers in the Maine et Loire - distinctly unstripped of their character.

The idea was then that you, spotting a new consignment, would buy a bottle, take it to the car park and taste it...a process made easy by the plastic stopper on the bottle.
If you decided that it was a wine to your taste - and there used to be unmistakable Barolos in these bottles - you would grab a trolley and load up, being careful to check the batch numbers to avoid the possibility of an unlooked for encounter with something sulphurous from Sicily.

I remember fondly another vin de table...this time a legit one from Languedoc...whose label showed a gnarled vine root, which on closer inspection after sampling the contents revealed itself to be a vegetative clenched fist...a true Red wine!

In my last few years in France, younger vignerons were experimenting with grapes unauthorised for A.O.C. rating in their local man had a plot of Pinot Blanc which made a superb white wine. It never made it to bottling stage as his customers were clamouring for it from the moment it finished fermenting and he could command a good price - so much for the A.O.C.

It is well said that good wine needs no bush.
These independent minded producers can sell their vin de table with ease. They have waiting lists of customers in some cases, both in France and abroad, and this does not go down well with the authorities.
This being France, boxes have to be ticked and beaurocrats employed.
Systems have to be respected.

So one vigneron in particular has found himself in deep doodoo.

Olivier Cousin of Martigne-Briand in the Maine et Loire.

Carrying on the family tradition of natural production methods and refusing to stay in the box provided he has had nothing but problems with the authorities for years.
For not paying his contributions he has been effectively bankrupted by the state...his accounts frozen.
Forbidden to indicate the geographical origin of his wine he has flirted with ways of giving a hint....he has labelled some wine 'Pur Breton'...Breton being the local name for the Cabernet Franc grape...he has given the name of his village...and, in one last cocking of snooks, he has labelled his wine boxes...not the bottles...

Anjou Olivier Cousin


He faces a fine of over 30,000 Euros.
To be paid, one supposes from the accounts the authorities have already blocked.

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  1. I like my wine one way only. Bottom up.

  2. That is so typical of the bureaucratic jobsworth. Rather than find a way to make the wine saleable, they set about trying to destroy it because it is outside a box.

    Can't have independent-minded types running amok, they might give others ideas and then where would our safe little jobs be?!

  3. Steve, that's unpretentious little number with a bit of style.

    Sarah, exactly so. The system supports the established big boys and that's how they like it.

  4. I have never though of tasting wine in the car park and going back for more, brilliant. I am only just getting used to French wines and I have to admit if I see S.African I will still buy it in preference. I guess having been brought up on it my palate is not taking to the change easily. Diane

  5. Diane, I hope your move went well and that you enjoy your future in France.
    We like South African wine too, but it doesn't appear here.
    The car park testing is a tip we found useful when visiting the 'end of line' shops.
    If you took a bottle home to try and it was any good, it had sold out by the time you went back!
    Goodness only knows what it does for the image of the Brit abroad...but a bargain's a bargain!

  6. A farce worthy of Feydeau, Fly. Not being in a wine-producing area in France, we're not au fait with the trials of wine producers, especially the ones with any initiative. Can he win?

  7. Perpetua, I don't think so. He's committed the ultimate crime...poked bravado at authority.
    There's a petition out, though.

  8. Hmmm I was thinking of putting some vines in my sapre field, but perhaps it's not worth it

  9. Mark in Mayenne, what about some of the old hybrids...Oberlin,Castel, Tete de Negre...

  10. Fantastic tip. From now I will be adding a corkscrew to my car jack,light bulbs, first aid kit and florescent jackets - just in case it's not a plastic bung!! Thanks for that!!xx

  11. Roz, my old friend Monsieur Untel used to say that he wouldn't leave home without one!

  12. Yes, Fly, I'd like to take a punt on an expectation of a rise in average temperature in this part of France (and a reduction in rainfall) over the next decade or two, and plant some interesting grapes that will make a decent wine under those conditions. The gite visitors drink a fair amount of wine, and if I can make some good enough it would be fun to offer it.

  13. Mark in Mayenne, the quality of cabernet franc in the Loire area certainly improved as temperatures rose, so i reckon you would do well.

  14. What became apparent to me while in France is how we woefully and inexcusably mislabel wine, and what puffery there is in our jacked-up prices for what would in France be definitely a vin ordinaire.

  15. mrwriteon, yes indeed! Pure snobbery and exploitation of ignorance.

  16. But I wonder, is the Brit or the French side to blame for the extortionate prices of French wine in the UK ? I know txes on alcohol are higher in the UK but still...
    I usually solve the problem by going back home twice a year and fill the car up to the roof! :)
    Still, almost £10 for à Bordeaux Sup. at Tesco, "I sink you are djo-king, non ?"

  17. Raphael Mour, no idea whatsoever! I don't live in the U.K. but I suspect that, as usual, it is 'what the market will bear'.