It was a tad surreal seeing the Château Margaux winemaker and the former boss of Château Cos d'Estournel dressed up in a poncho over his more business-like shirt and tie. But Paul Pontallier and Bruno Prats had come to the Groucho Club in London to talk about Viña Aquitania, their wine project in Chile. The fancy dress neatly blended patrician Bordelais reserve and a willingness to steep themselves in gaucho, rather than Groucho, culture. It was in 1984 that the Bordeaux duo first set out, with Chilean partner Felipe de Solminihac, to look for a high quality vineyard in Chile. In 2003 Bollinger's Ghislain de Montgolfier, "the fourth musketeer", joined them. After planting cabernet sauvignon in the heart of the Maipo Valley, they now also make Sol de Sol, a cool, southern Malleco Valley white, whose 2003 - around £17.99, Harrods; The Vineyard, Dorking ( www.vineyard-direct.co.uk) - is a beautifully defined, almost chablis-style chardonnay of considerable flavour and finesse.
The partners are among a growing group of French growers and winemakers who've taken it upon themselves to reap what the New World has sown. While happy to farm out French grapes, the French have for long jealously guarded "terroir" as their own, but the growing emergence of excellent New World wines has given the more open-minded pause for thought: maybe the New World too contains vineyards that can give a wine a sense of place. Confidence in their own ability to transform the untried and untested has spurred the French on in their quest for the Holy Grail of terroir overseas. They are supported by the great Henri Jayer (whose burgundies are among the rarest treasures of the wine world), who admits that he has changed his view that terroir accounts for 80 per cent of wine quality. "I think 50 per cent is down to the winemaker," says old man Jayer today.
It may be unfair to attribute baser motives to such French colonisation, but it was originally the lure of cheaper land and labour that got the ball rolling. Champagne's invasion of Napa Valley and points north and south, for instance, was necessitated by the limits to growth of the champagne appellation. The tangy Louis Roederer Quartet California fizz is one of the best from there, £17.50, Majestic, while in Australia, the high quality of Moët et Chandon Yarra Valley Green Point, £12.99 for the 2001, Waitrose, makes it a thorn in Moët's side. In Tasmania, Paul de Moor, from the Belgian family linked to Bordeaux icon, Le Pin, runs Pipers Brook, whose Kreglinger fizz is a fine sparkler in champagne mould (see this week's issue of The Traveller). As De Moor says of taking on Pipers Brook, "I was attracted to a terroir-driven winery."
Terroir is not an absolute though and the French themselves talk of "petits" and "grands" terroirs. When Michel Rolland, the French über-consultant of Mondovino fame, planned the impressive Clos de los Siete project (the 2004 is £10.99, Majestic, Oddbins, Waitrose, Canary Wharf), he was drawn to "the atmosphere, the people, the beauty of the landscape, and to Argentina's enormous potential for producing good wine". Not great wine, note. According to Catherine Péré-Vergé, the Pomerol producer and Cristal d'Arques heiress who's invested in Rolland's scheme with her own winery, Monteviejo, "the cost of building a winery is less than half what it would be in France, while the cost of production is 10 times lower in Argentina than in Europe. Maybe I'm chauvinistic, but in my heart of hearts, I don't think Argentina has the terroir of the finest Bordeaux." Terroir, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.