Food & Drink: Hard-pressed success

By law, France's great wines must be nurtured to perfection without any artificial help - hard for smaller vintners, but, argues Thomas Munro, crucial if wines are to remain diverse and challenging to the palate
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FROM MY vantage point - one of the many windows of the Chateau de Roquetaillade, 40km south-east of Bordeaux - I am tracking a pair of car headlights weaving their way through the forest on the other side of the valley. It is pitch black, and through the squally rain it is difficult to follow the path of the distant lights. While I can't be certain, I'd put money on it that the vehicle is a shabby, battered Citroen, and that behind the wheel is a ruddy-faced man with a short moustache, a rotund figure and the scent of wine and panic on his breath. Stashed in his boot is a lumpy sack in which is contained the driver's guilty secret: kilograms of pure, unadulterated sugar.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that in France it is illegal to have more than 25kg of sugar in your car, and should our driver be stopped (probably on the strength of the odour on his breath) and his perfidious cargo discovered, he would more than likely give the crisply groomed gendarme the standard excuse in this situation: "I'm going to make some jam." To which the unconvinced flic usually replies: "A deux heures du matin, monsieur?"

Any of the locals around here (the policeman included) would tell you that our man is really a vingeron who has just discovered that his grape juice contains too little natural sugar to achieve the alcohol levels necessary to qualify for the appellation d'origine controlee seal of approval. I am working at a chateau where the proprietor aspires to maintain his appellation graves controlee status every year, and who believes fervently in the laws that force these vingerons to make do with what nature has given them.

While the Viscount (yes, the French still have an aristocracy, albeit of nominal significance only) recognises the severe pressures that these traditions place on the large-scale production and the financial viability of smaller vineyards, he still believes firmly that France's viticulture depends on such controls, forcing man to contend with an ever-unpredictable environment.

"It's just too easy otherwise," he says in polished tones. He is referring to New World wines and, implicitly, the entire philosophy of wine-making they embody. According to him, a bottle of fermented New World grape juice is hardly even "wine", and he goes on to make the basis of his prejudice clear: "Australian vines, for instance, are what we refer to in France as hors sol [literally, out of the soil] - if you neglected to water them, they would die in the heat. Vines are not meant to live in those conditions; Nature does not want them."

By now, you may have elucidated another of the appellation system's strictures: remarkably, it is illegal to water grape-producing vines in France. The Viscount's stance seems hide-bound and reactionary, and I want to ask: "But if you did water vines in Australia's favourable climate, wouldn't they do better than in France's unpredictable weather?"

But strangely enough, it is just possible that France's traditions represent the perfect scientific approach. This point was elucidated when we took a drive along the hallowed soils of Sauternes. As we passed by the grand chateaux d'Yquem, Guiraud and Fargues (all staunch supporters of the said restrictions) I saw the humble secret of these lands, worth upwards of pounds 300,000 per hectare, for myself: the soil is rubbish. This terrain looks about as fertile as the surface of Mars.

But the soil is suffused with billions of white pebbles about the size of your thumb, which play a vital triple role in producing these extraordinarily sweet vines. The stones reflect the sunlight back onto the grapes, while providing excellent drainage for the aquaphobic Semillion vines.

Most importantly, the barren ground puts great strain on the plants, limiting the size and the number of bunches they produce, and thereby concentrating all the vines' efforts into nourishing a few sweet, impeccably flavoured grapes. Nature rarely strives to make life for crops more difficult. But this is what the French vintners, who produce the world's greatest wines, have learned to deal with over the centuries.

The Viscount draws a comparison between New World wines and the vegetables that are grown for supermarkets. "It would be quite feasible to erect giant greenhouses in which to grow our vines and simulate the Australian or Californian climate, but the results would be as consistently bland as Dutch tomatoes. True, the grapes would look perfect, every individual berry would be a model fruit, free from rot and with the right sugar concentration, but as an emotional indulgence the wine-drinking that resulted from this fruit would soon lose its interest."

Unfortunately, it is the supermarket ethos that is now dominating wine production; demand is for brand names and thus for properties that consistently produce the same juice. In Australia, the trend has gone so far that a gap has opened up between the grape farmers on one hand and the wine producers on the other, where the latter aims to reproduce the same product over and again to create a consistent, regulated supermarket item. How long will it be before the only way to tell wines apart will be by their labels, or through knowledge of the social category of customer that particular bottles are targeting?

By the Viscount's estimate, financial difficulties for the "smaller and more eccentric" chateaux are so great that in 30 years' time only vineyards of 50 hectares or more will be able to survive. Even at the giant Chateau d'Yquem (180 hectares, shown above) there has been a rush to buy up existing stocks because it's thought the family which owns it is on the verge of selling up to a large wholesaler which will be more interested in producing consistent branded quantity instead of unique quality.

However, there may be a silver lining to the cloud. The fashion that started in California for single grape wines (monocepages, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon) is - perhaps - the initiation of a transglobal wine culture, the first step in training new palates: a necessary stage before consumers will be ready to experiment with the less obvious and the less branded tastes exclusive to the microclimates of smaller plantations.

It boils down to taste, and trends in taste are almost impossible to predict. To wait for the ascendance of monocepage wines to fade is like waiting for people to tire of fast food; there will always be a market for hamburgers and chips, yet we've seen the essential monotony of fast food open a new niche for more varied snacks (sandwich shops, for example). But my fear is that by the time a change comes, many chateaux producing non-standard wines will have been forced out of business, along with 600 years of knowledge and skill.

So while it seems ridiculous to arrest a man for transporting 25kg of sugar in his car, the principle is still good. The law is there to preserve wines that reflect the character of the French countryside; it is a deeply conservative system, yet one that is looking to the future. If our vingeron is prevented from doctoring his juice, he will be forced to take more care in understanding his vines, pressing a product from his grapes that has identity; for it is identity in wines that will be of increasing value when consumers start to realise that they've been drinking the same old Chardonnay for too long.

It is, however, the consumers who control the market forces who will eventually decide whether there is a need for wines that are not necessarily designed to suit popular tastes. In the same way that we support the environmentalists' work to preserve a varied ecosystem, we should aspire to drinking with the discretion that supports a permanently evolving and complex viniculture. !