While France's first lady was seducing the audience of Later with Jools Holland, the country itself was coming to terms with the fact that this year's wine crop will be overtaken by Italy by some 500 million bottles. However, at least one French commentator had the nous to point out that its exports were still nearly double those of Italy. Anyway, he went on, "we are responding to the needs of a market that wants to drink less but better". He would say that, but over the past few years, competition from the New World has put a much-needed boot into the Gallic derrière. The French have also had to contend with the outlawing of advertising wine on the net because of its stringent anti-alcohol laws.
It's not all bad news from over the Channel. One bright spot in the tasting calendar is an annual event put on by the wine branch of France's trade organisation, Sopexa, called Absolutely Cracking Wines from France. The idea for the tasting followed the launch of Andrew Jefford's seminal book, The New France, in 2002, and it has endured. Wine critics are invited to contribute three wines in categories at under £6, under £10 and over £10. The stand-out categories in this year's 62-strong tasting were white wines from the Loire and south-west, white burgundies, reds from the Rhône, and reds and whites from Languedoc-Roussillon. The main let-downs, more from lack of presence than quality, were red bordeaux and champagnes, although red burgundies suffered on both counts.
The Loire showed the quality of its chenin blanc, the underrated grape of Vouvray and Anjou. To compete with New-World brands, the enterprising Englishman Charles Sydney has created the La Grille name for wines made to order. Gwenaël Guihard's 2007 La Grille Cool-fermented Chenin Blanc, £5.99, Majestic, is one example, an appley, fresh vouvray-style dry white with a touch of honey to it. Fuller-bodied and richer, Philippe Germain's 2006 La Grille, Classic Barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc, £8.25, Waitrose, is a food-friendly dry white with fine body and richness. There were some excellent white burgundies too, among them Christophe Cordier's stylish 2007 Milly Lamartine, £11.99, Majestic, a chardonnay whose toasty, aromatic quality is underscored by crafted complexity, the opulent, pineappley 2005 Thévenet Tradition, Domaine de Roally, £17.99, or £11.99 if you buy three, Thresher / Wine Rack, and the full-flavoured, would-be meursault style of the 2006 Saint-Aubin, Murgers des Dents de Chien, £16.99, Waitrose.
Bordeaux and good value are not always comfortable bedfellows, but there were a couple of oxymoron-defying examples, a herbal, blackcurranty 2004 Château Chadeuil, £4.85, a discovery at Bordeaux Undiscovered and in a superior league, a classic modern cherry and cassis-laden 2005 Lea & Sandeman Claret, £7.95, or £6.95 bottle / case, skilfully leavened with cedary oak. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised at this new development. Bordeaux is one of the few regions to have bucked the downward export trend of French wines and the high-priced euro by doubling the value of mid- to higher-quality reds sent to the UK last year. Much of this it seems has to do with the glowing reputation of 2005 bordeaux and the lesser vintages that followed. More good value clarets for the autumn and winter will be a recurring theme here.
For a fuller report of this wine tasting and others, visit my new joint-venture website thewinegang.com. Subscription is free to the end of October.