Odious though comparisons may be, when two of the wine world's giants go head to head with their major annual showcases on consecutive March days, it's inevitable that they will be examined against each other. With a catalogue of 105 pages, France looked a weighty proposition, but it paled into insignificance next to Spain's 206. Quantity schmantity, but French amour-propre had just been dealt a double blow by news that South Africa had pushed its supermarket wine sales into fifth place and exports had plunged by almost a fifth last year.
Add to that the report that France's first TV wine channel is under threat from its tough anti-alcohol laws and it's not surprising that the atmosphere at the French tasting was subdued. My impression was of too many wines seemingly desperate to catch the eye of supermarket buyers on the lookout for cheap deals. But there were exceptions, with good value in whites like Les Montgolfiers Sauvignon Blanc Gros Manseng 2009, £6.99, Tesco, a pithy zesty dry white, and the apple-crisp 2009 Muscadet sur lie, Château de la Jousselinière, £6, Morrisons, Asda, and the Perrins' 2009 La Vieille Ferme, Côtes du Rhône, £5.99-£6.99, Majestic, Waitrose.
It remains to be seen if a new official structure for French wine will succeed in helping it build competitive brands. The latest correction suggests that France's hope for the future lies not in trying to compete with the New World but in its range of quality wines.
Such favourites on the day were the distinctive 2007 Aviet Bacchus Trousseau from Lucien Aviet, Caves de Pyrène (01483 554750), a wonderfully traditional red from the Jura, whose delicacy of cherry fruit belied its concentration and character, and the deftly oaked, black-cherryish 2008 Château Paul Mas Clos des Mures, around £12.99, Hop Inn, Reading (0118 966 7265), Topsham Wines, Exeter (01392 874 501).
There was a contrasting buzz at the Spanish event where the winemakers seemed intent on breaking the shackles of tradition. New wave whites from Galicia, Rueda, Basque country and Catalonia looked increasingly convincing. There was a distinctively intense 2008 Coto de Gomariz Treixadura, around £14.99, The Sampler (020-7226 9500) and a superb 2008 Albariño do Ferreiro, from Gerardo Méndez, £17.99, Moreno Wines (020-8960 7161).
There was innovation in the Muscat-rich 2009 Botani, £15.99-£16.99, Handford (020-7589 6113), Halifax Wine Co, and the 2008 Navazos Niepoort, around £19, Theatre of Wine (020-8858 6363), Gauntleys of Nottingham (0115 911 0555), a dry white fermented in sherry casks with fino-like character at only 12.5 per cent alcohol.
Continuing in this vein was a delightful sparkling garnacha, La Pamelita, £15.50, Harvey Nichols, made by Scotswoman Pam Geddes, and a surprising Malaga pinot noir, the 2008 Cortijo los Aguilares, £17.27, Georges Barbier (020-8852 5801). There was an unusual 2008 rioja made from the native maturana grape, a vibrant tempranillo-based 2005 César Principe from Cigales, £19.39, Georges Barbier, and a host of reds from up-and-coming Bierzo including the "gamay-meets-pinot" 2008 Ultreia Saint Jacques Tinto made from the mencía grape by Raúl Peréz, £11.99, Handford, Bottle Apostle (020-8985 1549), Great Northern Wine (01765 606 767). In the battle of the giants, this round went to a confident new Spain.