France's so-called petits vins are taking steps to arrest the decline in French fortunes.
France's so-called petits vins are taking steps to arrest the decline in French fortunes. So successful was last year's inaugural Vins de Pays Top 100 that I decided to head off in advance of this year's competition to have a look for myself. After all, the calibre of the trophy-winning wines had convinced the judges - myself included - that the country cousins of the prestigious classics are not all as petits as some would like us to think. In fact vins de pays, which account for a third of all French wine production, offer the sort of interesting variety of styles that French wine so badly needs at the moment.
First stop was the Languedoc which - with its vast, catch-all appellation "vin de pays d'oc" - is easily the biggest source of vins de pays. The malaise of the many growers down south has obscured the fact that local savoir-faire and outside investment are driving an important revival. At La Baume, for instance, formerly owned by Australia's B R L Hardy, the new French owners readily admit that they have learnt much from the Australian's positive attitude. The result is a series of excellent-value varietals including the ripe, peachy La Baume Viognier (£4.99, Waitrose).
There's also Gabriel Meffre, whose Wild Pig and Fat Bastard brands have tapped into the youth market. In addition to dynamic local producers such as Maurel Vedeau and ex-rugby international Gérard Bertrand, the modernising spirit is best summed up by Jean-Claude Mas, who claims "it's impossible to make good wine in France without breaking the rules".
The results of this year's Top 100 tasting in London have just been announced, and vin de pays d'ocs didn't take all the top spots. From more than 1,000 entries, white wines from both the Mediterranean and Atlantic-influenced Gascony were just as exciting. Success this year was partly due to a fresher vintage for whites in 2004 and an increasing commitment to making dry whites more appetising. Refreshing sauvignons took the judges by surprise. And, beyond chardonnay, we saw the emergence of a host of newer grape varieties such as roussanne, marsanne, vermentino and viognier. Among a number of fine viogniers, Domaine Cazal-Viel is one to watch with its ripe and peachy 2004 Grande Réserve Viognier (£7.99, Thresher).
Three of the six white-wine trophies this year went to Gascony. I'd seen for myself how the remarkable Plaimont Co-operative, faced with the decline of armagnac, took its unwanted colombard and ugni blanc to Germany in the 1970s to learn to create a new style of refreshing dry white. Plaimont had a number of dry whites in the Top 100, among them the delightfully expressive, gooseberryish 2004 Vin de Pays du Comté Tolosan, Rive Haute Sauvignon (£5.95, The Wine Society), and the crisp 2004 Domaine de Pujalet (£3.99, Waitrose).
The sauvignon blanc gong was won by the 2004 French Connection Sauvignon Blanc (£5.99, Tesco), which stood out for its clean, aromatic expression of the variety. Domaine du Tariquet, the company with France's largest private holding of vineyards, won the chardonnay blend trophy for its New World-style blend, the richly flavoured 2003 Domaine Caillaubert Chardonnay-Sauvignon, Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne (£6.99, Majestic). And Domaine de Pellehaut took the white blend trophy for its zingy blend of five south-western grape varieties, the 2004 Vin de Pays de Gascogne (£3.99, Booths). Three victories to Gascony, underlining the success of a long-term strategy for shaking up a declining industry.