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UK bound: French Wine Discoveries

Published:  22 January, 2018

It can be a double-edged sword being a French winemaker.

On one hand, you have the cachet of having a product from the world’s most venerated wine country; but this is at stark odds with the task of standing out in a crowded market place like the UK – predicted to be the second biggest importer of still wine by value this year behind the US, according to the IWSR.

Such is the challenge for those at last week’s French Wine Discoveries tasting, where as yet undistributed producers in the UK were not only seeking representation but aiming to adapt to a notoriously competitive market, which not only means fending off New World competition, but competition from within France, where big names like Bordeaux and Burgundy take most of the star power.

However, France as a whole is used to adjusting its offering to the UK.

Take the Loire, France’s biggest producer of appellation white wines, for example: the UK is the region’s top export market, (20% of volume sales), behind the US (18%) and Belgium (15%).

In the UK, Brits tend to prefer the white-heavy production coming out of the region (47% is white, compared to 20% red, 24% rose and 9% sparkling), favouring Sauvignon Bancs from the likes of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, and also Côteaux de Giennois, which continues to grow in popularity and recognition.

This love of light, crisp whites, is at the expense of Cabernet Franc, which has been generally rejected by Brits - although according to Antoine Wäels, international project manager at Val de Loire, this could be changing.

“In the UK, everyone wants Sancerre and also Cremant de Loire,” he said. “When you spoke to UK buyers before, they didn’t like Cab Franc. But now there is a new generation producing high quality with soft tannins and ripe grapes. It’s the same for Muscadet. A few years ago, it wasn’t talked about in good way. But there has been a rebirth for Muscadet.”

Muscadet, made from Melon de Bourgogne grapes at the western end of the Loire Valley, is produced more than any other Loire wine; and this new style of Muscadet could be seen in the wines of Chateau la Perriere and Domaine Derame Alexandre at the French Wine Discoveries tasting, where more time on lees makes for more of a rich and rounded wine.

However, this is still a “very new way of producing Muscadet,” said Wäels.

It is more likely to be found in boutique wine shops in Brittany and in Paris – which are incidentally the two key French hotspots for Loire wines outside of the Loire itself.

Author Paul Strang confirms persistent insular regional consumption patterns across France, making it difficult for the myriad AOCs of a place like the Languedoc to push through outside of their own locale, let alone to the UK and beyond. 

“If you live in Paris, you drink Burgundy, Bordeaux and Loire, and you don’t want to know much else,” he said.

“Outside of Paris, you drink the wines of the region. Only on high feasts and holidays do people branch out.”

In his new book, Languedoc Roussilon: the Wines and Winemakers, Strang charts his love of the older grapes of the Languedoc, such as Cinsault and Carignan which continue to bounce back from being put on the back burner by the French government in former decades, when vintners were paid to plant Syrah and Mourvèdre instead.

Along with Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan are now continuing to “thrive in terms of perception and commerciality,” at home and abroad he said, despite being known for producing “bad, cheap wine” pre-1985.

Thanks to a switcheroo in thinking on the merits of these historic grapes, growers are no longer paid to root up Carignan, they are paid to grow it: “It was found if you prune it and keep yields low, then it makes great wine.”

While a sizeable 25% of all French wine reaching the UK comes from the southwest, the Languedoc-Roussillon is still dominated by its co-operatives, so individual wineries gaining export distribution is still a challenge for many - especially in a region which has to a certain extent been swallowed by the ever growing Occitanie, now comprising the Languedoc, Rousillion and mid-Pyrenees.

“The Languedoc has been lumbered with other wines from part of the southwest – I’m not sure the Languedoc producers are very keen about that,” said Strang.

However, Cahors and Gaillac in the southwest are making very interesting wines as part of the Occtaine, he added, and along with appellations to the east in Minervois and Corbières, and the lesser-known areas of Pic St Loup and Terrasses du Larzac are making some of the “best wine in the country”.

While the Occitanie as a wine branding tool is still taking its very newly formed messaging to places like the UK, individual appellations continue to grow names for themselves.

The success of Picpoul, for example, is encouragement for Howard Laughton, UK director of Château Capion based in the Languedoc’s Terrasses du Larzac - a relatively small appellation consisting of around 80 producers (as per listed on the official wesbite) half an hour from Montpellier.

“It is a treasure trove of super talented winemakers who make great wines,” Laughton said. “But the Languedoc is such a big area – you have to go hunting, which from a marketing perspective makes it more difficult.

“The Languedoc is less defined compared to Burgundy and Bordeaux and even the Roussillon. The only way to do it really is to raise the profile of the appellation. Picpoul has suddenly taken off. In the UK, you have to differentiate yourself even more because of the wealth of wine available on shelf.”