In the dead of a German winter, three English wine writers sat round a table in an Italian restaurant discussing French wine. The start of a joke? Actually it was the end of one, the punchline being the French authorities' refusal to allow its more humble wines to use the name of their grape variety. A new French wine category, Vin de France, was born last year and we were being asked to road-test it with a group of German colleagues in order to make a selection for June's Vinexpo, the giant wine fair in Bordeaux.
In essence, Vin de France is a catch-all category incorporating vin de table and producers of vins de pays who don't want to be tied down by geographical boundaries. It allows the name of the grape variety on the label, previously a no-no for vin de table under French law. It also gives producers the flexibility to blend wines from different regions. In short, it creates a new affordable wine category that makes it easier for French wine to compete with the New World.
Choc horreur? Well yes and no. Coinciding with the mid-summer day tasting, Le Monde published an article by Laetitia van Eeckhout calling the new flexibility "a cultural revolution in French wine". Vin de France's director, Valérie Pajotin, explained that, by chucking the old rulebook in the bin and being able to communicate taste through grape variety to new consumers, "we at last have the tools to compete on a level playing field with the big boys of the New World".
Vin de France is clearly an opportunity for bigger wine producers to create multi-regional brands. Take the sauvignon trophy winner, for instance, François Lurton's 2010 Le Fumé Blanc, around £8.50, Butlers Wine Cellar (01273 698724), Bouquet Wines (020-7221 6081). This smoky, elderflower-scented and zestily gooseberryish dry white blends wines from the Languedoc and the south-west; or Vindivin's Chante-Clair NV, £5.99, Laithwaites (laithwaites.co.uk) the trophy red-blend winner, which combines succulent red berry fruitiness in a southern French blend of carignan, syrah and grenache.
Yet, while our selection was dominated by big companies, there were plenty of small growers involved, because they too see the opportunity to create an eye-catching package saying "French wine". Among them, Katie Jones, who started making wine in the Roussillon last year, won the grenache trophy for her moreishly drinkable, mulberry and red fruits-flavoured 2009 Jones Rouge, £95 for six bottles, domainejones.com, also Dudley & de Fleury Wines (020 7036 9696). Mark Hoddy was another, a winemaker who created two wines for Laithwaites that respectively won the oaked chardonnay and vermentino trophies. The 2009 La Voûte, £11.99 as part of a mixed case, Laithwaites, is a rich, barrel-fermented chardonnay based on a blend of five different vineyards around the Atlantic-influenced area of Limoux. The latter, the 2010 Un Vent de Folie, £14.99, Laithwaites, is a subtle, oak-influenced interpretation of the refreshing Mediterranean grape.
But not everyone is over the moon about the new category, despite its obvious benefits. Entrenched views from the vin de pays and appellation sectors suggested in the Le Monde article that Vin de France could undermine their efforts to sell French tradition and its focus on terroir. Take the politics out and there's no earthly reason why there shouldn't be an entente cordiale between the two.