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French cricket

Published:  18 January, 2007

French wine producers have such a huge advantage over the Aussies, South Africans, Chileans, Californians and so on, yet only the scandalously overlooked vignerons of Saumur-Champigny have had the bravura bonhomie to capitalise on it. But capitalise on it they have, and in a most original way. Firstly, of course, French producers have the advantage of proximity. To get to Saumur-Champigny, all I had to do was leap aboard a coach four minutes from my house and go to Stansted airport thence Tours. I did not have to spend 25 hours in the air and possess a visa acquired after queuing up at Australia House, nor did I have to submit to the brutal indignities of the US immigration system. I did not have to ensure I was smeared all over with factor-300 sun cream nor drink only bottled water, and I did not require an Afrikaans phrasebook in order to express myself demotically when confronted with a 14.9% ABV Pinotage.

By a charming paradox, the stalwarts of Saumur-Champigny went further than any of these New World competitors. They formed a cricket team and invited UK wine writers to play against it. Instead of running us poor writers ragged, breathlessly from one vineyard to the next, they gave us the chance to stroll meaningfully between two sets of cricket stumps, merely offering their wine as a refreshment at the usual tea interval between innings. (Is there honey still for tea?' pales beside a late-harvest Chenin Blanc and, I kid you not, tarte aux pommes, though Earl Grey, in leaf form, was available, adjacent to a kettle and strainer, courtesy of Saumur-Champigny wine growers president Fredrik Filliatreau, who imports it).

One is often bowled over by a wine, but rarely is one bowled out by a producer of Cabernet-Franc. One would sometimes like to hurl something hard and round at the head of a wine producer, but never before have I been handed the legitimate means to do so and invited to hurl it (and applauded when the ball I bowled missed said head yet connected, quite gloriously, with the off stump). The French even contrived to do the gentlemanly - and very English - thing: lose against the visitors. What they won, however, was inestimable.

They won the affection of their guests, who managed, somehow, to imbibe a lot of local knowledge along with a good deal of the local wine and come away with an indelible impression of an area not especially highly regarded by wine lovers (who, even if they know the Loire, gravitate towards - as they by-pass Muscadet - Bourgueil and Chinon for their Cabernet Francs, Saviennires and Vouvray for their dry and off-dry Chenins and - yawn yawn - Sancerre for their dry white Sauvignons).

The only vineyard we visited in four days was unique and vaut le detour. Clos Cristal, owned by the Hospices de Saumur in Souzay, has a set of vines unlike anything else in the world. The vineyard's grapes are vinified separately and labelled, somewhat prosaically, Clos de Mur, because each vine's roots lie on one side of a long, high wall but the bunches grow the other, via discrete 8-inch holes, and thus they ripen with greater lan. I tried to buy a case of the wine but was told it was allocated locally. But then we weren't here to buy wine, or even, so it seemed, to write about it. We were here to play cricket.

And so transpired the most wonderfully relaxing, yet invigorating, wine trip of which I have been a part. The local food - 68 different ways of preparing pigs' intestines - is not for the faint-hearted, but when I am cremated and the motley cohorts of The Circle of Wine Wriers turns out to cheer, I hope Jim Budd in his address will not fail to reveal that my dying words were: If only I could have visited Saumur one more time, had one more glass of Champigny Cabernet-Franc, taken one more mouthful of pat de rillettes and bowled one more ball at a glowering Frog, I would pass even more happily through the gates of Heaven.'

I leave it to the imaginations of the Aussies, South Africans, Chileans, Californians and so forth to conclude the obvious moral from this tale. Saumur-Champigny will not be inundated with supermarket wine buyers clamouring for stock, and I hardly think Chteau de Chaintres, Domaine des Clos Maurice and Domaine des Champs Fleuris will shortly displace Blossom Hill in British wine drinkers' repertoires. The French for silly mid-off' and maiden over' (not to mention howzat!') will not soon be heard at Lords. But there are now 37 French cricket clubs (from Caen to Lyon, Bordeaux to Marseille) affiliated to the Comit National de Cricket and from small beginnings, as the Aussies know so well, incredibly big things can grow.