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.     

Friday, 4 January 2013

The red wine diet

So you’re reading a wine column in the first week of January, a time when most people are laying off the booze. That means either:

a.  You are a thorough type who always reads the paper from cover to cover, whether the contents are of interest to you or not. Or,

b.  You are obsessed with wine and pounce on any chance to further your knowledge of the subject. Or,

c.  Following a period of over-indulgence, you are scanning the page for tips on detoxing or, even better, a report on new research which shows that having a glass of wine on each day in January is actually beneficial to your health.

If you chose c., then I may be able to offer some solace. Professor Roger Corder’s 2009 book, The Wine Diet, explains how consuming wine can contribute to a long and healthy life. So grab yourself a glass (a small one mind) of red wine, a handful of nuts and berries and a square of dark chocolate and read on.

The French Paradox, whereby the French exhibit relatively low rates of coronary heart disease, despite high consumption of saturated fat, has been known about since the late 1970s. Since then there have been numerous studies investigating the relationship between wine consumption and general health and longevity. Roger Corder cites certain parts of the world which have an abnormally high proportion of centenarians, and also have a diet which tends to include daily consumption of wine – and especially red wine. Southwest France, Crete and Sardinia all fit this pattern.

Whereas inhabitants of Crete and Sardinia can probably count a typical Mediterranean diet low in red meat, high in fish, fruit and vegetables with olive oil rather than butter as part of their healthy lifestyle, people who live in Southwest France cannot. This part of France is the land of hearty, but hardly healthy, food like cassoulet and duck confit which, you might think, would harden your arteries on sight. And yet the people here are seemingly healthier and more long-lived than their counterparts in northern Europe, even with the same consumption of alcohol.

This conundrum prompted Professor Corder to investigate the possibility that wine, more specifically red wine and, even more specifically, certain types of red wine, may have a protective effect on health. His research has led him to identify a type of polyphenol, known as procyanidins, as the key to protecting the body’s vascular function, itself vital to prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease and possibly also stroke and certain cancers.

To cut a long scientific treatise short, red wines from France’s Southwest are found to have a high level of procyanidins. The bad news for white or rosé wine drinkers is that they do not occur in these wines. However, many studies have found that a small amount of alcohol (literally a small glass of wine of any colour per day) may have a beneficial effect on health for most people.

Women, however, are faced with the iniquitous choice of knowing that a small amount of wine each day may help prevent certain diseases, but that this same “dose” of wine may also raise their risk of developing breast cancer.

The good news, if you are keen to escape from the daily “glass of red wine hell” that drinkers subject themselves to, is that procyanidins are also found in things other than red wine. Strangely enough, red grape juice doesn’t contain them, as the compounds are extracted from the grape pip only during alcoholic fermentation, and not through pressing.

It’s no surprise that super-fruit pomegranate is deemed to be a good source of polyphenols, however, blueberries are not, according to Professor Corder. Chocolate and walnuts are also on the approved list – but don’t go reaching for a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, we’re talking dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids) which has had minimal processing, as procyanidins are often removed during more industrial production techniques. Apples (though not apple juice), cranberries (including dried), various berry fruits, as well as surprises like cinnamon all get the thumbs up.

It’s only natural to react favourably to news stories which tell us that something we enjoy is in fact good for us, without perhaps paying full attention to the whole story. Roger Corder is at pains to point out that moderate daily wine consumption can be beneficial only as part of an overall healthy lifestyle which includes a balanced diet and regular exercise. Sorry about that.

However, if you fancy searching out some of those high-procyanidin wines from Southwest France, here’s a good place to start:

Château Aydie Madiran 2009 £13.49 from Waitrose
The wines of Madiran, on the way to the Pyrenees in the far southwest corner of France, typify the high procyanidin wines that Corder recommends. Made predominantly from the Tannat grape which, as its name seems to suggest, is pretty high in tannin, they are deep coloured, full-bodied and structured wines which can age over many years. The current vintage is 2009 and is a relatively gentle introduction to the style.

Drinking wine with food is a more healthy way to indulge than propping up the bar or slumped on the sofa and these wines positively demand food – their full-on structure is tamed and the freshness of the fruit is revealed in all its glory.

Other producers to watch out for: Alain Brumont is the self-styled king of Madiran and his wines from Châteaux Bouscassé and Montus are long-lived classics. Rivalling Brumont for supremacy is Didier Barré at Domaine Berthoumieu, whose wines, including top cuvée Charles de Batz, are available from Guildford-based Southwest France specialists Les Caves de Pyrène.

If you would like to up your intake of procyanidins, but can’t get on with Madiran, then look for wines with body, structure and tannin (especially those made from Cabernet Sauvignon) and you will be on the right lines.

For the committed, there is much more to read in Roger Corder’s book, The Wine Diet (published by Sphere, £7.99).