Andrew Polmear

Old World Wines

Philip Reddaway, The Whistler’s wine columnist, is musing on old vs new world wines…

Red wine maturing in oak barrels

Checking the progress of a red wine maturing in oak barrels

In the past few years, French wine sales have taken a battering in the UK. Australia has now been joined by California as the most popular supplier of wine to the Brits. The attraction of New World wines is obvious: the consumer knows what to expect from varietal labelling (chardonnay, shiraz etc are recognizable brands in their own right); the wines deliver consistency – just as a true brand should; and, in these tough times, promotions discounting wine to less than £4 is clearly attractive. But those who wouldn’t tolerate sliced white bread in their diet would do well to apply their discernment more often to wine – for only a few pounds more you can savour artisanal products that ooze character, flavour and satisfaction – not just a quick fix alcoholic fruit bomb.

This is where France really comes into its own, in the mid-range price bracket £7-£12. Why are these wines generally superior? One reason is that the typical French winery is a small family business where the focus is on driving quality and reputation before profit, with an average 2/3 family members and 2 employees farming just 25 hectares of vineyard. Compare this to Australia where 15 giant wineries now make 86% of the wine produced.

Take one example of the difference a focus on quality can make: hand vs machine harvesting. I recently helped pick the harvest at Domaine des Anges here in the Ventoux and even this year when the fine summer had left the grapes in great condition we were still leaving about every tenth bunch on the ground, rejected for showing some signs of minor rot. A harvesting machine – ubiquitous in Australia – can make no such discernment; all the bunches go into the hopper together and in order for off-flavours not to appear in your glass, ‘corrective’ procedures are then necessary in the winery. When the French talk loftily about the importance of a wine “expressing its terroir” it’s too easy to scoff, what they really mean is they aim to reduce intervention (chemicals, modern techniques for softening tannins, wood substitutes etc) in the wine-making to an absolute minimum. The result is wines that are as infinitely different from each other as the terrain is different from farm to farm – it’s what makes wine-drinking such fun: the continual discovery of different nuances of aroma and flavour from different producers.

So, what are my top tips for characterful wines from our area, available in the UK, in that price bracket? At Majestic the 2006 Clos de Mont-Olivet Cotes du Rhone, £8.99 (or at time of writing £6.99 each if you buy two): big, savoury and warming. As an aside, Cotes du Rhone level wines from Chateauneuf du Pape producers are a great source of bargains. From M&S the earthy, spicy Perrin brother’s (another CNDP house) Rasteau 2007 at £9.99; and, finally, from the Devon wine merchant Christopher Piper, available online, the Cotes du Rhone Villages Visan 2005 from Roche-Audran at £11.16, a bio-dynamic wine of great complexity and character that will convince you that your extra pounds have been wisely invested.

If you are interested in one of our Provence based wine holidays please visit http://www.rhonewineholidays.com, or if you just want a fabulous place to stay as you drive through France we now do bed and breakfast – see www.bighouseinprovence.com.

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