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Fighting back

Published:  23 July, 2008

Nature morte automnale, one of the eight courses comprising the Burgundy Menu, was less auspicious than delicious as the signature dish of an event heralding The Renaissance of the French Vineyard. But the trompettes de la mort were savoured rather than sounded at the two-day annual festival of food and wine held at Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford on Monday and Tuesday 21-22 November. The event - supported by Sopexa, which offered members of the paying public and the trade the opportunity to taste more than 60 Absolutely Cracking Wines from France', as well as by corporate sponsors such as Spiegelau and The Sunday Times Wine Club - largely met Blanc's objective of showcasing the creativity, dynamism and excitement across four great French vineyards': Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhne and Languedoc-Roussillon.

Blanc himself spoke with his customary evangelical fervour, insisting that France was far from dead'. France is finding itself. France is ready for a big fightback,' he promised. France has made many mistakes, but we're tackling them. And the best thing about it is that we've learned humility... We're in trouble, but we're going to get out of it. It will take us five or six years. But the vignerons are the first to lead the way, and the chefs will soon follow... Politically, our backs are against the wall. But just give us a little bit of political help and you will see what will happen in France.' [Raymond Blanc is the subject of this week's Interview - Ed.]

A seminar, involving a high-profile chairman, French producers and a respected sommelier, preceded a lunch or dinner devoted to each of the regions. The seminars on Burgundy and the Rhne are summarised below, while that on Bordeaux follows next week.


Hugh Johnson adroitly chaired the Burgundy seminar, for which the other panellists were Pierre-Henry Gagey of Louis Latour; Anne-Claude Leflaive of Domaine Leflaive; Nicolas Potel, ngociant; Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac; and Grard Basset MW MS, sommelier.

Johnson began by admitting that there is a sense of crisis' surrounding French wine, but he pointed out that it doesn't affect everybody' (all of the panellists were clearly exceptions) and that statistics tell only part of the truth'.

In response to the first of 10 prepared questions - Should Burgundy be worried by the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir now being grown all round the world? - Gagey said: We have not chosen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have chosen Burgundy. They have become completely adapted to our climate and soil... It's wonderful that they're also being planted in other countries... We can work together, with different expressions.' He did, however, confess to one small fear': We must resist the temptation to copy the wines of the New World. Burgundy doesn't open as quickly as other wines... and journalists taste wines young... We mustn't lose our soul.' Leflaive was not too worried by the New World threat, either, and she also welcomed a wider range of styles but stressed that the new plantings needed to be in the right place' if they were to produce quality wines.

Two questions addressed the crucial issue of Burgundy's many appellations - whether confusion over appellations, producers and vintages was damaging, and whether a new Appellation d'Origine Contrle d'Excllence (AOCE, proposed by INAO president Ren Renou at last year's festival) should still be introduced. A straw poll, conducted Question Time-style by Johnson, on whether anybody in the audience wished Burgundy less complicated, saw not a single hand in the air - a result that promted his recollection of Robert Drouhin's words that in Burgundy, what we're selling is a dream'.

Gagey strongly supported Renou's proposal for AOCE, insisting that the problem was the name - it appeared to condemn the rest. The project is still there, but it will have another name... The action time is now. We have to keep pushing, pushing, pushing... 20% of AOC wine will be killed off, I tell you!' He was, however, a lone voice. Andrew Jefford, appearing in a video clip, protested: I don't think it's a good idea. People will be even more confused than they already are. It would be better to put the grape variety as well as the appellation on the label' (a suggestion to which Michel Bettane, France's most famous wine writer, nodded his assent). Basset accepted that in theory AOCE was a good idea', but he predicted that, because of all the political lobbying that would follow

its introduction, in practice, in 30 years, everybody would have it'. Potel agreed with Jefford that nobody would understand what was going on' and urged, We need to find new ways to guarantee quality.' Johnson identifed reform of the agrment system as a crucial part of such a process, remarking that some 98% of submitted wines are awarded AOC status. Gagey accepted that such a high pass rate was bad', but explained, there is no other solution: the only alternative is distillation, since there is no bridge between the different categories [AOC, Vin de Pays, Vin de Table]' - seeming therefore to support the proposal still under discussion in the region that wines refused AOC status might be declassified' to Vin de Pays.

On the question of whether biodynamic or organic production would give rise to more great wines', Leflaive, one of France's best-known biodynamic growers, argued that 90% of quality comes from the terroir' and that the only way to reach a perfect expression of the place ... is to work without artifice ... without fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides or cultivated yeasts'. Gagey was supportive, saying: We [at Jadot] also believe in [biodynamics], but because of our size it

is not always practical for us to follow it.'

He added, however, that Jadot was already avoiding herbicides and cultivated yeasts, and went as far as to suggest that the regulations governing grands crus and premiers crus should be revised to restrict their use.

On the related question of whether it is possible to improve wines without changing them', Johnson pinpointed the particular quality of the best Burgundy that distinguishes it from most other wines and that he would be sorry to lose: It's easy to end a wine with an exclamation mark - "Wow!" It's much more difficult to end a wine with a question mark.' (He would probably have agreed, however, that the best of the wines served with the dinner - the Leflaive 1999 Puligny-Montrachet, Dujac 1976 Echzeaux and Potel 2003 Clos de Vougeot - managed to raise both.)

With an eye to the forthcoming 2004 Burgundy en primeur campaign, and in response to the final question of the session - Are Burgundy prices competitive? - Potel's UK agent, Graham Gardner of Folly Wines, said: Prices haven't changed very much, and 2004 prices will be stable or will come down. There's never been a better time to buy Burgundy.'

The Rhne

The seminar on the Rhne Valley was chaired by Charles Metcalfe. The other panellists were Robin Walters MW, chairman of E Guigal's importer John E Fells; Franois Villard of the eponymous domaine; Pierre Perrin of Chteau de Beaucastel; and Olivier Poussier, formerly sommelier at Le Manoir and The Connaught, now working as a consultant.

Metcalfe began by outlining the history of Syrah in the Rhne before returning to the present day and stating that Rhne wines appear to have become richer and more extracted, perhaps due to the influence of certain American critics. He declared that some of the most exciting wines in the world are being made from Rhne varieties', and not just in the Rhne itself - a point picked up again later in the discussion by Walters, who thought that the success of Viognier in other countries was not a bad thing at all, since people might make the link with Condrieu, which is a very small appellation'.

The first question put to the panel asked why Rhne exports between March 2004 and March 2005 had remained the same

by volume but declined 16.8% by value. Walters blamed supermarkets and their aggressive discounting for this decline in value, though he did acknowledge that the quality of the wines was usually good.

The panel was also asked if the new Gallo Pont d'Avignon brand - described by Walters as a Ctes du Rhne created in the American style' - was a good thing for Ctes du Rhne. Walters felt that it was, saying, If the wine is good, it could be something nice for the Rhne Valley.' Perrin objected (without quite explaining why) to Gallo using Pont d'Avignon as a name; Metcalfe felt that it was clever marketing. Terroir was also discussed, with the panel proving that with this theme there is nothing new under the sun. For me, terroir is irreplaceable,' said Perrin, with Villard stating that modern oenological practices shouldn't be a barrier to terroir'. Villard, something of a parvenu to Perrin's old money, explained that he makes Vin de Pays wines as well as AC Condrieu and Cte Rtie because he wanted to experiment with non-AC varietals, most notably with his Merlot-based Grand Grue Glace (a Goats Do Roam-style play on cru class, meaning glazed crane'). Varietal labelling was mentioned as a possible way of simplifying Rhne wines but, as Walters pointed out, listing the dozen or so grapes that appear in a Southern Rhne blend might be a little difficult.

The panel was remarkably sympathetic to the Parker question - nobody had a bad word to say about his supposed influence on modern Rhne wine styles (and prices). As Walters explained, vis vis Parker's admiration for Guigal, When you are called the planet's greatest winemaker, you have to respect the guy who says it!' Walters went on to say that Guigal had been making wines in the same style long before they caught Parker's attention. Villard, however, stopped showing his wines to Parker in 1999, and he feels that, without the pressure of seeking Parker points, he has progressed as a winemaker.

The debate became far livelier when it was opened to the floor. Charlotte Moore, a reporter on The Guardian's City desk, said that it would be the ultimate indignity' if Gallo sold more French wine than the French themselves, and Walters pointed out that the Australians had spent a fortune on marketing their wines; the French hadn't, and need to do more'. Another audience member told the panel that there was no shame' in having back labels on AC wines; we can read Baudelaire's poetry, he said, but there was no harm in reading his biography, too.

Perhaps the crux of the problems currently afflicting the French wine industry was summed up by Perrin with a clothes metaphor: We know how to make haute couture, but we don't know how to make prt porter.'