A quest for the soul of French winemaking

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Never mind rugby. With the Australian kangaroo outleaping the French frog in take-home wine sales this year, les Bleus can do with all the allez they can get right now. Australia currently dominates in the £3.50 to £7.50 range. Only at over £7.50 does Gallic pride remain intact. Bearing this sobering reality in mind, Andrew Jefford's award-winning book, The New France (Mitchell Beazley, £30), was the inspiration behind a tasting this month of 100-odd French wines mounted in County Hall's Picasso Gallery in London to show "the stunning diversity and individuality" of the new France.

In his energetic quest for the soul of French wine, Jefford shows that however well we think we know the country, France remains full of hidden treasures. Quirky styles abound, as the tasting, which kicked off with France's white wines, demonstrated. Character simply oozes from the pores of André & Michel Quenard's dry whites from Savoie (The Vine Trail, 01179 211770), J. Puffeney's rustic Arbois from the Jura (Handford, 020-7221 9614) and Henri Ramonteau's exotically unctuous and pineappley Jurançon, Domaine Cauhapé (Morris & Verdin, 020-7921 5300).

Most of us who enjoy white wine are keen to know if the French classics like white burgundy are holding their own against the challenge from new-world chardonnay. One of the features of the modern burgundian style is a retreat from too much new oak to allow the fruit to express itself. This was ably demonstrated in the chablis from William Fèvre who appears to use less new oak to produce some wonderfully pure examples. His 2001 Chablis Premier Cru Montée de Tonnerre ( £15.67- £16.95, Wrightson & Co, Darlington, 01325 374134; Frank Stainton, Kendal, 01539 731886) is a model of perfectly pitched chardonnay underscored by intense, minerally flavours.

At the southern tip of white burgundy in the Mâconnais, Daniel Barraud is another example of the master craftsman producing richly buttery, but well-poised chardonnay as in the 2000 Pouilly Fuissé, Les Crays Vielles Vignes, (£14.95, Lea & Sandeman, London SW10, 020-7244 0522). Between these two geographic poles, Vincent Dancer in Meursault in the heart of the Côte d'Or, judges the balance of his style of chardonnay perfectly with some of the most voluptuous white burgundy, like his fleshy, sumptuously oaked 2000 Meursault Premier Cru Les Perrières (£29, Justerini & Brooks, London SW1, 020-7484 6400).

A who-dares-wins tendency to pick the grapes riper is another positive trend that's paying dividends. The best exemplars are on a constant quest to make the most of their patch of earth. The messianic winemaker Didier Dagueneau, for instance, whose 2001 Pouilly Fumé Silex (£37.95, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester, 0845 330 1855) sweeps all contenders aside in the purity of his world-class sauvignon blanc grown in the flinty soils of the Loire Valley.

In Alsace, Jean-Christophe Bott is one of a new generation of Alsace winemakers who succeeds in capturing the essence of the special terroir east of the Vosges mountains in wines like his beautifully limey and intense 1997 Bott-Geyl Grafenreben de Zellenberg Riesling (£9.99, Majestic). A standard-bearer for new breed of classy white Bordeaux, Château Haut-Bergey may not have changed much on the surface but fresh blood takes this property's gorgeously rich, zingy and expressive 2000 Pessac-Léognan (£20, Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1, 0870 900 4300) to new heights of distinction.

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