Reinvention. How the South of France is a little bit like Madonna

France. It’s one of those countries people either love or hate, or, even more often, love to hate.

I fall in the love category even if I don’t really fancy the politics and can’t quite figure out how anyone can live to old age in the country given how horrific their driving skills are.

But many people I know fall into the love to hate camp, so they invariable hate French wine, too. Such opinions might be politically driven (history is difficult to forget for some people), or simply by past experiences with bad French wine (too tannic, too austere, poorly made, etc).

That’s a shame. Too many people I know have turned away from Old World wine in favour of the New World. Sure, we’ve seen excitement coming out of California, New Zealand and Australia, so too South Africa and Chile.

But saying new regions are more interesting than established regions is like saying classic cares aren’t as fun and exciting as modern sports cars. I’d argue the frightening tendency of an older Porsche 911 to spin out at high speeds offers up plenty of excitement compared to the 2012 model with all of its traction control, but I suppose it all boils down to how you define the term.

So while many of us might see the New World as a hotbed of excitement in winemaking, can the stuffy Old World producers reinvent themselves to keep up with modern times?

You bet. And that is one thing I love about France right now, particularly in the South.

While there are plenty of producers in France who continue to turn out uninspired attempts, it’s not as though this isn’t happening elsewhere, either. But for the Languedoc-Rousillon region, which had a reputation for producing cheap mass-market wine, a renaissance has been taking place.

In 1985 big changes were set in motion in the region when it was first granted AOC status. This also happened to be the year when Madonna, the most famous of all reinventers, first started appearing in movies, first with Vision Quest (yeah, I can’t remember it either) and most notably Desperately Seeking Susan. Coincidence? I think not.

Since then, winemakers all over the region have invested in better techniques, better viticulture and much more careful winemaking. No longer can we look upon Languedoc with scorn. It is now a place where serious winemaking happens.

Another thing I adore about France is the co-operative system – when it works at its best. If you happen upon a great co-operative, you’re likely to unearth pleasant, well-made wines at more than reasonable prices.

This was the experience I had with my English friend Trev when we were in the Loire region in 2011. Spurred on by a recommendation in one of Hugh Johnson’s books, we went off in search of the co-operative known as Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée. What we ended up with was bottle after bottle of vibrant, enjoyable wines that seldom cost us more than €5 each.

More recently, I had a similar experience when drinking the wines of Les Vignobles Foncalieu at a dinner the company arranged for clients and some wine writers (disclosure: the company paid for a meal a London restaurant and supplied the wine).

A slightly more commercially minded outfit than the Confrérie des Vignerons de Oilsy et Thésée, Foncalieu has manged to keep its co-operative culture while also break into the premium wine market.

Of all France’s regions, it south must be one of the most exciting, most diverse and most surprising. This is an area that has made vast improvements in quality over the years, all resulting wines that are rich, full of flavour and, more often than not, reasonably priced.

The Foncalieu wines I drank range from their Grands Vins series, all four of which originating in the Languedoc region. I also had the chance to try their white Saint-Chinian, called Petit Paradis, and their wonderful Enseduna Muscat sec 2011.

Of all of their wines, the muscat sec was the one that stood out the most. It’s an honest, crisp white wine that was harvested early, in mid-August of 2011. The winemaker described it as “like eating fresh grapes,” while I thought it had a pungent, almost gooseberry aroma, along with a grassy, almost straw-like appeal. In my notes I wrote that it reminded me of a fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc in character, even if made from a different grape. For just £8.50, this wine is a steal.

Another one of their whites, the Petit Paradis Saint-Chinian 2010, is a blend of marsanne, grenache and roussane. This is an oaky wine thanks to being matured in barrel and is dry and refreshing. It is mineral and citrusy with a hint of marzipan.

Among the reds in the producer’s Grands Vins series, I was able to try the Apogée Saint Chinian 2008 and 2009; Le Lien Minervois 2008; Les Illustres Coteaux d’Enserune 2008; and La Lumiere Corbieres 2009.

These were all rich, interesting wines, but sadly contained in those politically incorrect heavy bottles. Packaging aside, I found most of these wines to be full of wonderful baked dark fruit flavours so typical of warm wine regions. Le Lien was young, rich and brambly, with an almost fruit cake flavour to it.

Meanwhile, Les Illustres 2008, which sells for about £20, offered up dark fruits, boiled sweets in a leaner style, almost humble and restrained. La Lumiere 2009 had fresh acidity, medium body, those baked dark fruit plus a tannic backbone. The Apogée 2008 was fresh and lean, while the 2009 version had more finesse, lots of dark fruits and a good dose of tannin, suggesting it needs a lot more time to mature.

So there you have it. Had the AOC not been granted in 1985, perhaps these wines would never have existed.

Fizz for £10. What’s not to like? Quite a lot in fact

On the same day we were remembering our war dead, the Daily Mail was busy celebrating this year’s crop of ultra-cheap Champagne offers in the run-up to Christmas.

In an attempt to win the hearts of consumers all over the UK, supermarkets such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda are slashing prices on their Champagnes, sometimes to as little as £10.

Now, shops like Lidl and Aldi have always sold their wine on the cheap, so finding a bottle of bubbly there for £12.99 doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But to see the big supermarkets cut their prices by more than 50 per cent is a little worrying.

Sure, we all like a good deal and if it’s at the expense of the big supermarkets’ bottom lines, is it really such a big deal?

Yes. But not for the reasons you might think.

The problem isn’t that the supermarkets are more than likely making a loss on these wines (and if they aren’t, they have simply squeezed the producer’s profit down to almost nothing). It’s that the big supermarkets are discounting these bottles so heavily to the point independent wine retailers are suffering because they’re unable to compete.

Even though the likes of Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco are selling Champagne brands like Dubois-Caron, and De Vallois at cut-rate prices rather than finer marques like Bollinger and Louis-Roederer, the damage it causes to small retailers is the same.

For the average consumer who simply wants to pop a bottle of Champagne for the lowest price possible, the name on the label is probably not of great importance.

Some will say those customers are unlikely to buy from a specialist wine merchant on the high street anyway, but the fact is many of these people *do* visit them and, if they’re used to seeing fizz selling for £10 at Asda, there is a good chance they’ll recoil when they see the real price for good Champagne.

Whether or not £25 or more for a bottle of Champagne is justified in any case is up for debate; the sticker value might reflect how much it costs to produce the wine but might also be set at a level to push it into the luxury bracket.

Nevertheless, selling Champers for a tenner still isn’t good for the market, particularly when it is for less than what other retailers pay for their bottles on the wholesale market. So while Tesco is sending their bottles out the door at a loss hoping to make up for it elsewhere in the Christmas rush, the high street specialty wine shop is losing sales – and customers – because they simply can’t afford to make a loss.

It also does no favours for merchants selling English sparkling wine, which are seldom sold at deep discounts due to the young market’s economics.

Faced with the choice between a £10 generic Champagne and a £25 bottle of Ridgeview, will the average person care if one is better than the other? They are likely to see a massive price different and simply go for the better deal. This not only hurts the shop selling English wine, but also the producers who make it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I visited my local Lidl recently and, during a moment of boredom in the interminable queue, I decided to buy one of its £12.99 Champagnes.

Did I feel proud getting such a good deal? No, not really. I bought it because I was curious to see if it was any good. It is currently in my cellar, sitting next to bottles of Bollinger and Dom Perignon, as well as English sparklers like Ridgeview and Breaky Bottom. It might have competed on price, but I doubt it will be able to compete on quality.

Wine smelling of hair perming fluid? Less than a fiver

It was bound to happen eventually. I had gone months, if not more than a year, without tasting a white wine I found truly difficult to drink.

On the flipside, there have been many red wines along the way I found to be fairly vile (not including corked or oxidised bottles), but when it came to white wine it was all drinkable to one degree or another.

Clearly this should have given me reason to worry. Instead, I merrily went along with my daily business believing all was good in the world.

And then the offending bottle came into my life, a Calvet La Fleur Baron. Like a bad relationship, it was all wrong from the start. I should have avoided it before it began, but hindsight is a perfect science, as they say.

Yes, it was only £4.50, but I’ve never been one to believe price on its own is a determining factor. No, the signs lay elsewhere.

First, I bought it at Asda. I never shop at Asda. I haven’t liked Asda for, well, ever, and so the fact I was in there, buying not just one bottle of wine but two of them (they were on ‘sale’ apparently) in a part of Greater Manchester called Chadderton, could only mean bad news.

Second, in order to buy said bottle of wine I cycled to this Asda with my friend, Tim, on a fairly grim Friday afternoon when bad weather was rolling in and the sun was setting quickly.

It was cold. The traffic was frenetic. And the people in the store all looked like something out of the zombie apocalypse. All the signs of a bad relationship were there in front of me but I never saw them.

The tipping point, of course, was on the ride home from the supermarket – in the dark. Tim had been leading the way and himself narrowly avoided being side-swiped by someone driving a generic people carrier. He stormed off in anger to catch up the faux minivan, while I made the mistake of trying to follow. The traffic was dense and backed up. The sun had set. It was eery out there.

And that was when it happened. Just as I was sneaking along a line of stopped cars I saw another trying to cut through to a side road. I accelerated in vain to avoid it. BANG. The car hit my rear wheel and sent my blinking red light flying. My bike was out of control and I had to lean hard to the right to avoid slamming into a car on the left.

It was a hairy moment. Had I been carrying the wine I’d be tempted to believe, in hindsight, this was an attempt by some higher force to destroy it before it could reach my lips.

Despite that horrific experience, I was unscathed although a little bit shaken and a whole lot relieved.

And that is exactly how I felt every time I took a sip of this wine. It’s a horrific and frightening moment that you think could result in your demise. But then it’s suddenly over and you realise you’re still standing and, remarkably, uninjured.

When I shared this wine with Tim and his girlfriend, the initial reaction was negative across the board. For me, it smelled of hair salons. You know, that pungent odour of hair perming solution that lingers in the air. I thought it would go away with air or more chilling. But the stink remained.

There might have been decent fruit in this wine, but it seemed flabby and disjointed. It left a sharp taste in the mouth that made me want to do anything but drink more.

Worst of all, despite all three of us drinking a moderate amount of this wine, we all complained of worse-than-normal headaches the following morning.

Lucky for Tim he still has the second bottle of this misfit in his pantry.