Friday, 18 January 2013

I say PGI. You say, what?

I live in Surrey, which must be a hot contender as the middle, the very epicentre, of middle England. And if there’s one thing guaranteed to get under the skin of middle Englanders, it has to be the EU.  We are as the hobbits of the Shire and Brussels is Mordor – somewhere we would never choose to go and view with deep loathing and suspicion.

However, I like to think of myself as a forward-looking and easy-going pro-European type, not prone to casual Brussels-bashing.  And yet I do have a beef with Brussels on behalf of British wine drinkers – and French wine producers.

Let me explain.  Back in the 1970s, a time when I was innocent of all things winey, and more intent on deciding whether to swap my Blasé perfume sample for a Miner’s metallic green eyeshadow with my friend Tammy (I did, but am still not sure if it was a good move), a new French wine category emerged: Vin de Pays. 

Fast forward to the late 1980s and I, along with many UK drinkers had taken to Vin de Pays like ducks to water.  At about the same time that Australian wines arrived here, brashly brandishing their varietal labelling, Vin de Pays did the same for French wines – Chardonnay Vin de Pays d’Oc gives you a good idea of what to expect in the bottle and provides a general indication of where the wine is from – in this case anywhere in that vast swathe of southern France known as Languedoc-Roussillon.  And it is easy to say, a factor whose importance shouldn’t be overlooked.  Vin de Pays and especially Vin de Pays d’Oc, which accounted for around 85% of all Vin de Pays, came to make up almost 10% of the UK wine market – a success in anyone’s book.

But then, in 2009 along came an EU project to standardise and harmonise wine regulations across all countries.  On the positive side, this resulted in the creation of a new category, “Vin de France”, which allows wines to be sold which are multi-region blends and which can be made of any variety you care to think of.  This kind of wine is commonplace in the New World – any Australian wine that is labelled as coming from “Southeast Australia” for example. 

However, this harmonisation has also left the Vin de Pays category a bit of a dog’s dinner.  That user-friendly term was to be replaced by Indication Géographique Protégée, or IGP – also sometimes “anglicised” to PGI.  Consumers have had to get used to a name that is either a bit of mouthful to say, or an unmemorable 3-letter abbreviation – either way, a definite marketing disadvantage compared to what had gone before.  The EU has since “clarified” that the Vin de Pays wording can still be used, in parallel with the new IGP/PGI, leaving us with a situation where some producers have abandoned Vin de Pays and jumped ship to IGP, others have stuck steadfastly to the old labelling – and everything in between, including the use of Pays d’Oc without the Vin.  Confusion rather than harmonisation reigns.

The idea is that IGP should be used uniformly across the EU for the same category of wine, replacing the different terms that existed before, such as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) in Italy, or Viño de la Tierra in Spain.  It may not surprise you to know that Italian producers have largely ignored the new, harmonised, regulations and are still labelling their bottles IGT rather than IGP.  Plus ça change, as Delboy would doubtless have said.

Some Vins de Pays, sorry IGP Pays d’Oc wines, to seek out:

Paul Mas Vermentino 2011 - £7.99, or £5.24 if you buy two at Majestic
Jean-Claude Mas of Domaines Paul Mas is a powerhouse of well-made and original wines from across the Languedoc.  Vermentino may not be a familiar grape variety – it is mostly seen in wines from Sardinia and elsewhere in Italy.  However, it also goes by the name Rolle in Provence and is responsible for the famous white wines of Cassis (now there’s a confusing name for a white wine). This is a great easy-drinking wine with structure as well as freshness, making it a versatile food match.  At the promotional price it’s sensational value.

Mas des Dames Blanc 2011 - £12.95 from Roberson
Grenache Blanc is widely grown in the Southern Rhône and across the Languedoc, but is mostly added to give weight and alcohol to a blend.  Here it takes centre stage and, given careful treatment including low yields from vines grown in limestone-rich soil and six months in old oak barrels it makes for an original-tasting winter weight white.  The aromas of buttery pear and pear skin lead onto a weighty yet balanced mouthful with a finish of white pepper. It’s also certified organic.

Domaine Gayda, Figure Libre Cabernet Franc 2010 – available from various independent merchants, including Oxford Wine Company (£16.99) and Leon Stolarski (£14.95)
The price of this wine tells you that the IGP/PGI category, whatever its faults, is certainly no barrier to ambitious wine-making.  Cabernet Franc is another largely unsung variety that is usually subsumed into a blend with more assertive partners.  Allowed to show its true colours, it sings (to mix my metaphors):  black olive, violets and black fruit with a dash of bitters make for a cornucopia of ripe and slightly wild flavours – yet it retains freshness and great drinkability.

If this wine knocks your socks off, there are more wines to explore from Domaine Gayda, whose name, to the English ear, suggests an appeal to the pink pound demographic.  Their Chemin de Moscou 2010 is a more typical southern blend of mostly Syrah plus a dash of Grenache and Cinsault, which you can pick up for £19.99 from Leon Stolarski or £22 from Highbury Vintners.     

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