Looking through the shop window of this spring's supermarket and high-street press tastings, one of the more striking features is the extent to which France is taking on board the competition of the New World and its customer-friendly face. The dull lists of meaningless appellations and négociant names are giving way to a host of brand names à la New World. Some arrive with a French accent, like Chamarré, Première, La Terre or Blason de Bourgogne. Others like Stone Road wouldn't look out of place on an Australian or Californian shelf. And, following in the footsteps of Fat Bastard Chardonnay, there's a new tongue-in-cheek breed like Le Freak, Chat en Oeuf, and the self-deprecating Arrogant Frog, telling us that the French can lighten up if they have to.
Speaking of frogs, animal labels are in too. In the New World, Australia has made great play of its cuddly creatures, South Africa its big game. The most successful, Yellow Tail, with its kangarooo on the label, has done for Australian wine what Crocodile Dundee did for the country's tourism. Now France is putting its best hoof and paw forward. At Morrisons' spring tasting, I came across four French bottles with, respectively, a cat, a hedgehog, a sandpiper and a butterfly on the label. Quite why we need cute animals on the label to buy wine I'm not sure, but at least they're accompanied by the growing use of grape varieties on the label to help us through the maze of wine styles. The flexibility of the vins de pays rules is a model, which latterly the snootier appellations are cottoning on to, hence the likes of Cave de Lugny Bourgogne Chardonnay and La Terre Bordeaux Merlot.
Encouraging as it is to see France making an effort to modernise its marketing, much of what's in the bottle remains unworthy of the flash labels. Many of the parcels brought in by Waitrose for their French wine showcase in May were underwhelming. Oddbins' recent Focus on France tasting was all the more disappointing for the fact that there were no fewer than seven wines, mostly mediocre, from Bichot, the burgundy négociant that Unwins (RIP) used to feature so heavily for some reason. Whatever happened to the Oddbins spirit of adventure? Equally depressing was the French section at Morrisons, and not just because when Morrisons swallowed up Safeway, they decimated an innovative wine range. Chamarré, for instance, a catch-all new mass-market brand, is inoffensive, but dull, similarly Première from the Loire and La Terre from Bordeaux.
It can be done. Blason de Bourgogne is one of the saving graces of the new French approach. From a region with as marginal a climate and fickle a grape as burgundy, consistency is not easy, but Blason hits the spot, albeit more so with its white wines, of which the vivid, buttery 2004 Blason de Bourgogne Chardonnay, £5.99, Morrisons, is an example. I was also taken not just with the striking label design of Chat en Oeuf (don't tell Châteauneuf-du-Pape), but this 2003 Côtes du Ventoux, £4.99, Morrisons, displays juicy cherry fruit sweetness with a fresh astringent twist of acidity. Supermarket own-label wines with traditional rather than fancy labels can also work for France if the wines are well-chosen. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference 2005 Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, £4.99, 2005 Pouilly Fumé, £8.99, 2004 Sancerre, £8.99, and 2005 Chablis Cuvée Sainte Céline, £7.99, are a case in point: consistent, quality dry whites to knock your socks off for the price. These at least represent more than the triumph of form over content.