Monday, 16 September 2013

Vive la différence!

How does rhubarb and mint grab you?  No, not as something to drink, but something to wash your dishes with.

At a time when globalisation and international mega brands are making foreign places feel ever less foreign, it’s comforting to know that, just a short hop across the Channel, some things are still refreshingly different.  Viz, France’s fondness for whacky washing up liquid flavours and a big trend this year:  metallic brown cars. 

And for a country which has something of a reputation for being stuck in a rut when it comes to wine, there has been a mass invasion of French supermarkets by “boissons aromatisées à base de vin” – wine-based drinks with flavourings.

This was not a trend that I could ignore, so I sacrificed my tastebuds in the name of research and plumped for a bottle of Very Pamp’ – a rosé wine combined with pink grapefruit flavour (pamplemousse being the French for grapefruit, hence the name).  The bottle advised me to serve it very cold – but, dear reader, I don’t think I could ever make this stuff cold enough to be palatable.  The smell was fairly pleasant, with a nice fresh and zesty pink grapefruit whiff.  The palate was incredibly sweet, like drinking sugar syrup, with a more generic fruitiness and then a kick of alcohol to round off the experience (it’s 10% alcohol).  The biggest added ingredient after wine is clearly sugar.

I thought that rosé and pink grapefruit was a relatively safe choice – there are plenty of more scary concoctions on offer:  lemon sounds OK, but what about mandarin, white peach, wild strawberry and cranberry, raspberry?  Especially when you know that those flavours are coming not from the fruits in question, but in the form of flavourings – accompanied by lashings of sugar.  Add to that brand names like “Sucette” (lollipop) and it all adds up to a sickly combination that would surely fall foul of UK licensing laws which forbid branding which might appeal to minors.

I sincerely hope this wine trend doesn’t cross the Channel, but at least I have provided an early warning, so you can be prepared and make suitable preparations for avoidance.

Thankfully, there are still some things that you can count on France to deliver – and wine is, of course top of my list.  This summer I had the chance to re-visit one of my favourite areas, the Loire Valley.

The Loire as a region is hard to pin down.  Unlike the classic regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, it doesn’t  produce a single, predominating style of white or red wine, based on a single grape variety or consistent blend.  This is hardly surprising given the geographical and climatic differences that intervene on the river’s journey from the vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, almost bang in the centre of the country, to the intensely maritime Muscadet area around Nantes, with many a twist and turn in between.  Across the entire region, every conceivable style of wine is made, from bone dry whites, to off-dry rosés and sappy, juicy reds, via sparkling  wines of every hue and taking in luscious, lip-smacking and long-lived dessert wines.  Grape varieties are many and yes, varied, including the all-conquering Sauvignon Blanc, the underrated and mighty Chenin Blanc and the Melon de Bourgogne of Muscadet for whites.  Reds can be made from, amongst others,  the high-quality Cabernet Franc  grape (which also fills in on rosé duty) or sometimes Gamay or even Cot (aka Malbec).

Here in Britain we have developed an increasing fondness for fizz in recent years, with the chief beneficiaries Italy’s light, fruity Prosecco and Spain’s “Champagne-lite” style Cava – in addition to Champagne itself.  The Loire has been making good quality sparkling wines for many years and they offer an alternative with something of the fruitiness of Prosecco, but more depth of flavour and without the cloying sweetness; and more finesse than many a Cava.

The UK’s three most-readily available Loire sparkling wine makers also happen to have (or have had) links to Champagne houses, whose expertise at making fine quality fizz must surely have a role in their success.   Central to the style of these wines is the use of the region’s Chenin Blanc grape, which has naturally high acidity, even when ripe, making for sparklers which retain their zip and freshness, even when combined with baked apple fruit.  The wines are made using what we are obliged to call traditional method (which then requires further explanation to specify that this is the same method used to make Champagne), instead of the more readily understandable “méthode Champenoise”. 

Gratien & Meyer – The Wine Society has a long-standing relationship with this producer, producers of The Society’s Saumur Brut (£9.50 a bottle).  Majestic also list the (surely overwhelmingly similar) Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut NV for £13.49, down to £11.99 if you buy two.

Langlois-Château – Champagne Bollinger is the more famous Champagne name in the background at this high quality producer.  Around £11-13 from independent merchants.

Bouvet-Ladubay – once owned by Taittinger, this family-run house makes an elegant fizz which is available currently from Majestic at £8.99 a bottle.

If you get the chance to venture to the Loire in person, some of the most characterful, high-quality and good value sparkling wines will be made by small family producers, especially in areas like Vouvray, which specialises in sparkling wine production.  Often these artisan wines are either difficult or impossible to find here – but it’s always worth checking out independent merchants, who can deal with the smaller producers.

So, of all the things that could possibly make the leap across the Channel, here’s my verdict:  wine-based drinks – no; brown cars – hmm; grower-produced sparkling Vouvray – yes please.

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