Wine columnist Clare Morris has over 10 years’ experience in the drinks industry consulting with, hotels, restaurants, pubs and bars across the UK. She is currently studying for a Diploma at the WSET London Wine and Spirit School.
The mention of French wine is enough to make some UK consumers go running for the hills. Immersed in snobbery and complexity, most people choose firmly to avoid the whole category for fear of looking stupid or rendering themselves bankrupt.
I sympathise enormously, but I have to feel a certain amount for the French as well. With a wine industry steeped in tradition and prestige, they have a fabulous and diverse portfolio to offer and yet are experiencing a decline in sales in the UK every year. Long gone are the days of all-French wine lists outside all but the most specialist of restaurants as our palates have moved away from the serious, tannic reds of Bordeaux and towards a more fruit-driven, modern-style from Australia, Chile and their Southern Hemisphere counterparts. This in itself is no bad thing, as I’m all for menu variety, but it has left us a little unfamiliar with some seriously good wine regions.
This month the French celebrate their national day, Bastille Day on July 14, accompanied by the traditional parade in Paris with a march, air show and fireworks from the Eiffel Tower. This festival marks the storming of the Bastille prison and represents the uprising of the modern nation. Whether this is something of importance to you or not is not my concern, but for me it’s a great reason for us all to get out of our New World comfort zone and explore some interesting, great quality – but by no means budget busting – French wines.
I have to start with a seasonally appropriate rosé. The vast majority of growth in rose sales over the last five years has been in the sweeter options available on the market – White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio Rosé etc. However we are now seeing a slight shift towards the more elegant, drier style of rosé – of which France has plenty to offer. You’ll still find some of the sugary stuff if you look for it, but France’s love affair with rosé is generally crisp and refreshing with a delicate pink hue and a hint of red fruit – perfect for a hot summer’s day or night. With a sea view from every table, you could do worse than sample one of these exceptional wines at Branksome Beach restaurant in Poole. Joseph Mellot’s Sancerre Rose Le Rabault is, quite simply, divine. Don’t be fooled by the name Sancerre, made in the town of the same name, this is Pinot Noir rather than Sauvignon Blanc. My favourite pairing with this style of Rosé is lamb and Branksome Beach offers a great dish – pan roast rump of English lamb with new potatoes, spring greens and pea salad for a seasonal twist.
Down the road from the tiny appellation of Sancerre we find ourselves in the heart of the Loire Valley, true Sauvignon Blanc territory. The area of Touraine is perhaps not as well known as Sancerre and doesn’t command the same price tag. True, it doesn’t quite reach the finesse of its neighbours, but I urge you to taste a Touraine Sauvignon and not be impressed by its quality. This region mastered the elegance of this grape long before New Zealand and Chile and should not be forgotten. I can never quite decide whether fish or goats’ cheese is a better option here and found both at Taplow House in Buckinghamshire. Domaine Trotignon Sauvignon and a choice of pan fried haddock fillet on a pea and mint purée or goats’ cheese and herb pithivier with fresh herb salad. Which would you choose?
France also makes, in my opinion, the best summer red in the world. Beaujolais is a bit of a Marmite wine – after all the heavy New World Shiraz and Cab Sauv we’ve been pouring down our necks for the last decade or so, a delicate Beaujolais can seem like a bit of a disappointment. Treat it as something completely different though, and it comes into its own. Many will advocate chilling it slightly and it’s true you don’t want a baking hot bottle (nor of any other wine for that matter!) but I personally don’t think it needs to be chilled in the fridge. Think cool underground cellar as the French would traditionally have stored their wines. I’m going to recommend paella here because the classic strawberry and raspberry flavours of the wine go well with a range of Mediterranean tastes – chorizo, seafood and tomato-based sauces. Luckily we found an excellent match for the Beaujolais-Villages La Perdrisette Thorin at the Olivetree Restaurant in Southampton. Well known for fresh, natural food, you can choose from a range of classics or dishes with a modern twist to suit just about every palate.
For a slightly more substantial, but equally fruity red, try a much less commonly sold grape variety from the South of France around Montpellier – the Carignan grape. This wine is rich in darker red fruit flavours and comes from 40-year-old vines which add to its concentration and complexity. I only discovered this grape a year or so ago and frankly, I can’t get enough of it. For our last venue, however, you will have to travel to the Isles of Scilly to sample. At St Mary’s Hall Hotel in Hugh Town, St Mary’s, you’ll find an elegant, refurbished townhouse just two minutes from the beach. As the Carignan is great with lightly spiced dishes and also smoky options, I’d go for either the Cornish baked potato cake with chilli and coriander and filo pastry crust, or the chicken breast served with smoked bacon and lemon thyme mixed bean cassoulet. Or you could just stay two nights and have both!