Les Anglais show bottle in Beaujolais

The morning after the night before, Nouveau country met its English rivals. It was pleasantly surprised, writes Michael Streeter
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The Independent Online
Nursing a hangover, the small French town of Beaujeu, near Lyons, woke yesterday to find that the English had "arrives".

The scale of this invasion of the heart of Beaujolais territory was modest, but the contents of the raid could have wider implications on Anglo-French cultural relations - a handful of cases of English "nouveau" wine.

On the day that France and the rest of the world celebrated the uncorking of the season's Beaujolais Nouveau, the new foodie magazine EatSoup decided to return the compliment. In an overnight operation it drove over four cases of English-nurtured wine to test on one of France's proudest wine- producing regions.

There was an air of tension as the people of Beaujeu, still suffering from drinking and dancing until 6.30am, loosened their palates to taste this foreign drink. But when it came the verdict was universal - the upstart English wines were "agreables".

The town's mayor, Paul Plazanet, was almost ecstatic about the taste and bouquet of the 1996 Three Choirs white English table wine, bottled in Newent, Gloucestershire, only 10 days ago. "It has a distinctive character and I was surprised at the quality - I haven't come across a good English wine before," he said. "It has a pleasant nose."

In the town's Cafe de la Tour 72-year-old Andre Bonnen, a veteran of many years' work in the vineyards, was persuaded to part from his early morning pastis to sample the wine.

He paused before commenting: "I like it, and I think it would go well with oysters. I didn't know there was any wine from England."

When 12 workmen sat down in the cafe and were served the same wine, the reaction was similarly favourable. "A bit like a Macon Chardonnay," one said.

In fact, whether through politeness, the effects of a civic hangover or the quality of the product, it was impossible to find anyone who had a bad word for the wines from across the Channel.

Jean-Pierre Meyer, a restaurateur who, together with other lovers of the grape from Lausanne, Switzerland, makes an annual pilgrimage to taste the new Beaujolais, was also full of praise. "I had no idea you had good wines in England and I would stock it in my restaurant. As a curiosity."

The French tradition of the primeur wine from Beaujolais, just north of Lyons, dates back to the last century but took off elsewhere in 1974 when Britons staged their first race to acquire the wine before anyone else.

Over the years the value of the Nouveau has been measured more in its newness than its quality but 2.2 million bottles will still be imported to the United Kingdom this year.

Derek McMillen, co-owner of Lamberhurst Vineyard in Kent whose 1995 Bacchus-Seyval table wine was also well received in Beaujeu, believes the Beaujolais product is "over-hyped" and says the French can be arrogant about their claims to produce the best wines. Before shipping out his own version with the EatSoup expedition he accurately predicted: "I think they will be pleasantly surprised at how good it is."

His firm, which will produce 489,000 bottles - the vast majority of white wine - this year, has already established a small but growing export market to the Continent. Even in supermarkets in Calais the wine is selling well, "mostly to the French", he says.

The editor of EatSoup, David Lancaster, who organised the three-car "Reverse Beaujolais Nouveau" trip to France on the traditional third Thursday in November to extol the virtues of the English wine, said it had the potential to be popular anywhere. "When you discover the proper drinking classes over here they welcome it with open arms."

And although the people of Beaujeu, still clearing up the empty bottles and casks of wine early yesterday, have great faith in the superiority of their product, they were unfailingly magnanimous about the English attempts at rivalling them.

Daniel Lamblin, Cafe de la Tour's owner, said: "We all have a huge hangover from last night. But even with a hangover we still know a good wine when we taste it."