Friday, 14 February 2014

What have the French got down the back of their sofas?

We are told that it’s a good idea to rootle around in our soft furnishings, with some sources estimating that between us we have around £40 million tucked away in loose change between the cushions of our sofas in Britain.

The French, too, are harbouring some hidden gems in their chaises longues. Vinous gems I mean; little-known, often rare grape varieties that can enrich the life of wine drinkers the world over.

France has famously given us grape varieties which have earned the soubriquet “classic” and which have gone on to conquer the world (the wine world at any rate). Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot – these are wines A listers, names that are instantly recognizable and which are grown the length and breadth of the wine producing world.

But France amounts to much more than these wine superstars. If you have a virtual rummage down the back of France’s vinous sofa, all sorts of surprises result: varieties you’ve never heard of, even some that were thought to be extinct.

How does this happen? As Kirsty and Phil would tell you: location, location, location. Many of France’s smaller wine-growing regions are in rural, sparsely populated, isolated areas, far from anything that might resemble the beaten track. In “la France profonde” such as this local customs – and very local grape varieties – can persist where elsewhere progress, development and fashion have swept them away in favour of more recognizable varieties.

Here I invite you to embark on a virtual tour of some of France’s hidden gems that are worth winkling out.

Domaine Bruno Lupin, Roussette de Savoie, Frangy 2012 - £12 Caves de Pyrène

 Savoie is France’s only true mountain vineyard and the surprise is not only that it harbours its own unique varieties, but that this snowy, alpine environment is capable of producing wine at all. Roussette is the local name for the variety Altesse and if you’ve been to Savoie to ski then you might have downed a glass of this to accompany your fondue.

The vast majority of Savoie’s wines, most made from the unremarkable Jacquère grape, are consumed locally, much of it by thirsty skiers; as wine writer Andrew Jefford put it, the region benefits from “buoyant and undiscerning local demand”.

Roussette/Altesse seems to originate in Savoie itself and makes mountain air fresh wines with a herbal flavour and rather soft, pear-y fruit.

Château d’Anglès La Clape Classique 2010 - £12.49 Hawkshead Wines, £13 The Cheese and Wine Co (Hampton)
This wine highlights a white variety that is normally found in the role of second fiddle elsewhere in France. Bourboulenc, for it is he (she?), is one of the 13 varieties permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and is grown widely across much of southern France. Only here, in La Clape, however, is it the focus of the white wines.

La Clape is a former island which now forms a limestone massif between Narbonne and the Mediterranean. Legend has it that when it was still an island off the coast of the Roman city of Narbo, Julius Caesar gave Roman legionaries permission to plant the first grapes here.

Whatever the historical truth, La Clape today is a viticultural one-off, its limestone blinding in the strong southern sun, the vines and olive trees that manage to grow in its stony soils blasted by winds. Benign it is not.

And yet this is where Bourboulenc reaches its true potential as a variety. At Château d’Anglès, the situation is also helped by having Eric Fabre as its owner – a man who had previously spent 8 years as the winemaker at a certain Château Lafite Rothschild.

This Classique cuvée, a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 30% Grenache blanc and a dash each of Roussanne and Marsanne, is made without the use of oak and really showcases the variety’s innate ability to produce wines with as much texture as flavour, combining fennel, a hint of honey and a mineral stoniness.

Domaine du Cros Marcillac “Lo Sang del Païs” 2012 - £7.95 The Wine Society

Marcillac really is in the middle of nowhere – technically it is in the Aveyron, north of Rodez, but middle of nowhere about covers it.

The grape that locals here know as Mansois changes its name in other parts of France’s southwest variously to Braucol, Fer or Fer Servadou and finally Pinenc. You don’t need to know all this to enjoy this delightful little wine though. Its bright, slightly twiggy fruit is a perfect foil to a bit of bread and pâté – and could even be chilled in the summer.

Domaine d’Alzipratu Cuvée Pumonte, Corse Calvi 2011 - £18 The Wine Society

Corsica’s history of being ruled by both Pisa and Genoa before becoming part of France has resulted in an intermingling of French and Italian influences, and this is reflected in its wines.

Nielluciu (the Corsicans seem to be fond of adding a “u” to an obviously Italian word to make it more “Corsican”) is widely grown on the island – but is in fact none other than the classic Tuscan variety, Sangiovese. Here it appears in a supporting role to a variety that can be claimed as one of Corsica’s own: Sciacarella.

Sciacarella, meaning crunch in Corsican dialect, does in fact originate in Tuscany as well, but is all but extinct there. This wine has dark, brooding fruit aplenty with a wild, herbal streak and a structure that demands food.

La Magendia de Laypeyre, Jurançon 2009 - £19.75 Caves de Pyrène

Where better to finish our tour than with a most delicious dessert wine, made on steeply sloping vineyards tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The variety here is Petit Manseng, whose thick skins permit it to remain on the vine long into Autumn (sometimes even into Winter) without being affected by rot. The grapes shrivel in a process known as “passerillage” and are then fermented and aged in oak. The result is an intense experience combining the flavours of honey, quince, mandarin and grapefruit marmalade, shot through with piercing acidity that gives it a characteristic clean finish. Try it with a tangy blue cheese and die happy.   

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