Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…
There’s a wine on sale at Naked Wines called La Gare Old Vine Carignan from Domaine Jones. It’s a sumptuous Languedoc red; rich, complex and full of the sunshine of the south of France. But when you look to see where it’s from all you find is Vin de France. This is an appellation that only became legal in 2010; before that these wines had to be called Vin de Table – the lowest description possible in France. The French do love to categorise everything, especially everything that can be eaten or drunk.
What’s the significance of Vin de France? The new title came about to acknowledge two things. Firstly, the increase in the practice of blending grapes from different areas. Some wines have always been blended. Non-vintage champagne, for instance, is a mix of different years, blended to give consistency year after year. Another French example is Paul Mas wines. They are everywhere in the UK. In the US Paul Mas’s Arrogant Frog is the top-selling French wine. Paul Mas himself made and sold wine from his vineyard near Pezenas but it’s the son, Jean-Claude, who is the marketing genius. Now the family owns vineyards across the Languedoc whose grapes are blended to give volume and consistency. It’s a good business model. The Australians have always done it. Jacob’s Creek may sound delightfully local and small scale but the wine is made from grapes grown hundreds of miles apart. Of course you lose individually doing this; but blending doesn’t always produce bland wine. Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most prestigious red wine, is a blend from different vineyards. That way its makers can choose the best grapes each year and keep to a consistent standard. It seems to work. The 2007 sells at over £1000 a bottle, although if that’s too much for you, Waitrose Cellar has the 2009 for a mere £420.
The second reason for the new title of Vin de France is that some winemakers want to work with more freedom than is permitted under the old appellation rules. This explains Katie Jones’ use of Vin de France for her Carignan, above. Usually she sells her La Gare wines under the Fitou appellation. But she’s not allowed to do that unless she limits her use of Carignan grapes to 30%. She, rightly, thinks that Carignan from old vines makes good wine in its own right, so she puts two fingers up to the Fitou appellation and goes ahead – but can only call it Vin de France.
There’s a third point about Vin de France. The regulations are much less strict, time-consuming and expensive than ‘higher’ appellations. Some small wine makers chose to sell under the Vin de France category for these reasons alone. And if your grapes come from an area in France with no right to use any specific geographical name, or the wine is too poor to reach the standards required by that name, Vin de France is all you are allowed to call it.
So when you see Vin de France think “Ah, this could be interesting – or not”. Typically French that.
Categories: Andrew Polmear