I had high hopes for the Vin de France designation for table wine when it first burst on to the scene four years ago. A new rule letting producers blend wine from different regions and put the grape variety and vintage on the label gave French producers a chance to say goodbye to plonk and compete with New World brands.
According to Valérie Pajotin, who organises the designation, "Vin de France should be viewed as the classification to bring new drinkers into French wine". But, after the fanfare, does it achieve that feat?
This year's competition took place in Paris with 88 wines out of 292 awarded medals by an international jury of trade and press. The star performer for me was sauvignon blanc. The 2012 La Belle Saison Sauvignon Blanc, £7.99, Laithwaites, stood out for its juicy character in which flavours of gooseberry mingled with herbal undertones. As did François Lurton's elderflower-styled 2012 Le Fumé Blanc Sauvignon Blanc, £8.20-£9.50, Bouquet Wines, winebear.com.
One of the few grower's wines in the competition, Noel Bougrier's Loire Valley 2012 Les Abbesses Sauvignon Blanc, £7.99, or £6.99 bottle/case, Laithwaites, was zesty and spring-like in its crispness. In contrast, the 2012 Kiwi Cuvée Sauvignon Blanc, £5.99-£6.16, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, emulated New Zealand with herbal, grapefruit flavours and a dry aftertaste. Also palatable were the tropical citrus 2012 Mongravet Chardonnay, £5.29, Waitrose, and Hervé Sabadeuil's black-cherryish Chante-Clair blend, £6.49, or £5.49 bottle/case, Laithwaites.
It's a pity, though, to see good growers such as French-based Brit Katie Jones, whose Domaine Jones won a gold medal three years ago, dropping out. Why? "I'm not allowed to say my wine comes from the village of Maury in the Roussillon and, unlike IGP Pays d'Oc producers, I get no promotional support from Sud de France." Her 2011 Domaine Jones Fitou by Mademoiselle Jones, £12.99, Majestic, incidentally, is worth seeking out.
Far-sighted merchants like Jean-Claude Mas and François Lurton are aware of the benefits of Vin de France. If the wine is good value, the Vin de France award coupled with an idea of quality (vintage) and style (grape variety) has meaning. "Vin de France is a potential stepping stone for producers to raise their game," says Jean-Claude Mas. For it to become a force to really compete with the New World however, producers need to aim higher. To help them do so, less politics and greater incentives for producers, particularly small growers, would help.