Last month I spent one-and-a-half very interesting days as one of the judges for the third annual Top 100 Vin de Pays competition, run jointly by the trade paper Off Licence News and Sopexa (the branch of the French government responsible for promoting exports of French food and drink). Results of the contest will be formally announced in May, at the London Wine Trade Fair. The result for me was a fascinating insight into the problems of this major sector of the French wine market.
One of the most interesting results was the poor showing of many of the major grape varieties, especially red. Syrah did very well, but there were few exceptional wines made from the varieties that have proliferated across the globe, especially Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. No trophy (given to the best wines in their category) was awarded to either of those varieties, and few wines in which they dominated got into the list of 100. Since these wines were made outside Bordeaux, where those varieties are in their element, it suggests that French winemakers would do well to concentrate on what's been proven over time to work best.
Another interesting result was that so many of the wines are unavailable, or only marginally available, in the UK. Of those that are available here, many hail from the larger producers that have marketed themselves well in recent years: Foncalieu, La Forge, Laurent Miquel and Domaine du Tariquet being four of the best known. Smaller wineries making some stunning wines don't even seem to have found - or perhaps tried to find - a UK distributor willing to take them on. So there's little point in recommending any of them.
Having said that, I have to mention three wines in passing: the Sauvignon Gris 2005 from Domaine de la Saulzie, Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France; the Petit Verdot from Preignes le Vieux 2004, Vin de Pays d'Oc; and Mas Carlot Cuvée Tradition 2005, a Grenache/Syrah blend also from the Languedoc. If you happen to spot any of them, whether here or in France, leap on them greedily.
By far the greatest percentage of wines came from the Languedoc, which makes perfect sense given the size of the region. But there were others from much smaller and much less recognisable areas, and this gives a clue to the difficulties of getting these wines due recognition in the UK market. The three New World wines in the box to the right all have names and labels that are easy to read: a producer, a country, and in one case a regional name that's familiar even to the minimally wined-up. With many of the French wines, familiarity seems far less likely.
I mean, in how many people's minds do the following Vin de Pays names ring a bell, let alone a bell of excitement: Gers, Var, l'Ile de Beauté, Portes de Mediterranée, Duche d'Uzes, Côtes Catalanes, Côtes des Thongues? All produced constituents of the top 100, but using the Vin de Pays name as a selling point would - in most cases - simply be futile. A member of the on-trade, with responsibility for buying wines for his firm's pubs, says that selling these wines would be "incredibly difficult" when they were placed alongside well-known names from Chile, Australia or New Zealand.
Competitions such as the one I judged may help overcome the obstacles. It was very well run, with four teams of three tasters doing an initial trawl through over 1,000 wines so no one had to sample too many, and all wines were tasted blind in flights (groups) identified by varietal only.
On the second day, we formed different groups to taste the remaining 135 wines and reach the magic 100 figure. Apart from wishing for a little flexibility in the number chosen, I really do trust the competition's results. I just wish I had more trust in France's ability to fight back against the New World competition.