Food & Drink: War of the world's best, cheap reds: The New World gives better value under a fiver, said Anthony Rose. France rose to the challenge

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT WAS bottles at dawn. I had boldly declared to Paul Boutinot, a wine importer, that the New World offered better value for money than France when it came to bordeaux-style reds. It was a cabernet-soaked rag to a bull. Anything the New World could do for under pounds 5, Bordeaux could do better, he maintained.

We each chose 10 bottles we thought would prove our point, a second opinion, and an independent referee to ensure that justice was seen to be done.

Mr Boutinot is not hostile to New World wines as such. He has been a negociant in Beaujolais for four years and has just registered as a negociant in Bordeaux. With his Gallic name and his exclusive trade in French wines, you might quite reasonably be led to believe that the man eats, drinks, speaks and thinks French and plays petanque in his sleep. In fact Mr, not Monsieur, Boutinot comes from Stockport, and his accent is firmly Lancastrian.

He admits to preferring a wine 'where the last glass is more interesting than the first - and that applies more to French wines than any other. I am not keen on upfront, jammy styles, and this is a criticism of the majority of New World wines, but some of them can be excellent'.

So one fine morning in March, 21 (I had slipped a joker into the pack) claret and claret-styles were lined up, masked, numbered and arranged in no particular order. Style apart, the only other qualifications were a pounds 5 ceiling and availability in the UK. If I had added availability in a major supermarket or off-licence chain, I think my challenger would have suffered.

Mr Boutinot's 10 were all minor clarets, mostly from petits chateaux with the odd negociant or co-op blend, the oldest being a 1988. Being from lesser-known Bordeaux cotes, or hillside districts, the blends were almost all at least 50 per cent merlot with some cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc blended in.

My 10 wines were from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Bulgaria; the 11th one was a new-wave south of France. Apart from the Chilean merlot, all my choices were made predominantly from the cabernet sauvignon grape. They, too, were young wines, the oldest being 1988.

To assist his cause, Mr Boutinot chose Stuart Calder, a York GP who also happens to be an excellent wine taster. I asked along Michael Schuster, author of Understanding Wine, who runs his own wine school, Winewise, in north London. Our independent referee was Nicolas Belfrage, Master of Wine and author of the book, Life Beyond Lambrusco. Marks were to be awarded for quality, so it was agreed in advance that we were looking for the best wines, irrespective of their origin.

Who won? Well, the wine did. Since the selection had all been hand-picked, the standard was expected to be high and we were not disappointed.

Mr Boutinot thought the bordeaux quality 'was overall more consistent' and that the New World wines were too up-front. Those of us batting for the New World saw these vices as virtues. It was the diverse and obviously popular taste of the New World that appealed. It was clear there would be neither winner nor loser. We were judging by different criteria.

The wine that summed up the difference was Australia's Seaview Cabernet Sauvignon. This was the wine that, for Mr Boutinot, characterised the up-front obviousness of the New World. 'It is not a good wine,' he said. 'It flatters to deceive.'

Mr Belfrage recognised the Penfolds style, acknowledged it as good, if confected - 'a winemaker's wine cleverly made to a formula, albeit a successful one'. It was the only wine he gave two marks to: '14/20 (for himself) 18/20 (for the punter)'.

But it was Mr Schuster's favourite. He felt his students, among others, would love it, and defended the vanilla oak and exuberant blackcurrant fruitiness by analogy to a popular favourite in another field, The Blue Danube. 'Perhaps it does pall after a while, but it's one of the great popular classics. Lots of people love it,' he said.

There was the challenge in a nutshell: the popular classicism of flamboyant New World fruitiness, combined with the vanilla and spicy flavours of new oak, against the tried and tested, subtle proportions and diversity of claret. To decide which style you prefer, you must taste for yourself. The good news is that the bordeaux blend continues to be popular, wherever the wine comes from, because it is capable of delivering fine quality at an affordable price.

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