Marcel Orford-Williams on 35 years of buying from the south of France

There are few who know the French Country like our buyer, Marcel Orford-Williams. Now, on his 35th year buying for the region (which covers the Languedoc, Provence, Corsica, and the south of France), I sat down with him to discuss his experience (and wine recommendations).

Marcel Orford-Williams on 35 years of buying from the French Country

Take me right back and tell me about how an interest in wine first emerged. 

I spent all my summer holidays in France, where there was always wine on the table. I was allowed it mixed with water or lemonade, which I guess is how it started. I studied history at university, which is my real passion, and while I was studying, I got the chance to try some decent wines. Soon, I realised that history and wine went hand in hand: it’s all about dates. I got a job in a wine shop where I studied for my first qualifications. I later joined The Wine Society in September 1986. 

Did you go straight into a buying role? 

I went straight into a washing-and-drying-glasses role! There was only one buyer, Sebastian Payne MW, who wasn’t fluent in French but I was, which led to me accompany him on his various buying trips. 

And then when did you become a buyer? 

I didn't. I had no contract of employment!   

Those were the days… 

Those were the days! I just learned on the job – and I believe the first area I took over was French Country. But then, you must remember that in those days our French Country range wasn’t that big at all. We had our own-label French Country wines, but most of them were bottled here in the UK. In that regard, the job of a wine buyer responsible for French Country wasn’t very important, but it was, and still is, an area with the potential for growth. The chairman at the time – Edmund Penning-Rowsell – was very good at reminding us that there was more to life than Bordeaux. He knew there were other things to be found. 

Marcel Orford-Williams
Marcel Orford-Williams

Do you remember the first time that you visited the region as a wine professional? 

Oh, yes. My first visit would have been January 1987. We used to do a big Tour de France road trip, stopping off at many regions in one visit. It was slightly bewildering, to be honest, because you spent all your time just driving, but it was unforgettable. 

Have perceptions of French Country wines changed from when you first took over to now? 

That's a good question. In a way it hasn't changed that much, which is unfortunate. I think many people still regard French Country as a breadbasket of cheap-and-cheerful wines. But there’s so much more on offer, and the wines have changed, hugely. 

Tell me more about that.

The quality has just gone skywards. At that time, 90% of production, if not more, was co-operative driven – especially in the Languedoc. The wines were relatively cheap: some were well made, some were not quite so well made, but they were all rather alike. That’s changed a lot, because many estates today just didn’t exist back then.

I think people are not always aware of just how diverse the place is, and how many styles of wine they produce there.
Marcel Orford-Williams

What is exciting you the most about French Country wines right now? 

Climate change is bringing about many interesting developments. In the Languedoc, people used to plant the classic grape varieties – chardonnay, sauvignon, cabernet. Supermarkets loved it, because they could sell easily recognisable grapes, but I always thought this was a mistake. What makes the area so interesting is it has a whole load of native grape varieties. But now, because it’s getting hotter and drier, suddenly people are realising that the native grape varieties aren't there for nothing. They can actually withstand the increasingly hot and dry climate. I find that development very exciting. 

Which varieties should drinkers be particularly interested in? 

Well, there's picpoul, which is now rather well known because it’s on an awful lot of wine lists. And then you have a variety like bourboulenc, which is a Greek grape variety which is very, very old indeed but has found itself in the Languedoc. There's a mutation of carignan called carignan blanc, as well as carignan gris, which are both interesting varieties. And then you have cinsault which is just a fantastic grape variety. 

Staying with the Languedoc, are there any producers particularly exciting you right now? 

Yes, in Corbières is a winemaker called Pierre Bories – his estate is called Château Ollieux Romanis. He mostly does reds as he makes The Society's Corbières, but there are also excellent whites. 

Let’s talk a little bit about Corsica. How long have you been buying from this area? 

It’s been about 20 years and I’ve been visiting it for 12. I love that Corsica is very wild, very independent, and driven by a handful of estates. It has a weird, weird history with attachments to Italy, but also Spain. As a result, they have a whole hodgepodge of varieties. At one time they planted cabernet and pinot noir, but now they’re cutting It back to what they used to do. The wines aren’t cheap, but I’m not sure they can be as cost production is quite high. 

You mentioned rosé, so we obviously now have to talk about Provence. Opinions? 

Yes, but Provence can be more negative than positive because there’s become such a huge fashion for pinks – 90% of what Provence now does is rosé. A lot of the time, the biggest estates have been bought by Champagne houses so it’s all marketing and stupid bottles. Plus, the wines are mostly identical. Finding a good rosé is not easy. 

Gallery: The South of France

Are there any you’d recommend? 

Of course! We do real rosé from a famous estate called Château Vignelaure. They mostly make reds, but they make very good rosé and white wines too. 

Moving onto the south-west, which I think is a rather underrated region. 

Yes, the south-west is fascinating, because it's, it's not really one region at all. It's lots and lots of small regions, which are all grouped together with a fascinating history – they are all linked to the Pilgrims route. 

Tell me more about this. 

Each area of note is a stopping place where pilgrims would rest on their way to the Pyrenees. In each of these places, they’d be given lodging and the local wine, most of which was produced for exactly this purpose. The origin of their great varieties come from the Basque Country, which was a kind of borderland between Christian Europe and Muslim Europe. You had big monasteries who were very forward-thinking and produced a lot of grape varieties which travelled to Bordeaux, throughout the south-west and to the north as well. So, things like cabernet sauvignon, malbec, tannat, sauvignon – it all comes from the same kind of place really. It's just absolutely fascinating. 

You’ve talked about tannat quite a bit recently, as a seriously good-value wine to look out for. 

Yes, it's good value, because it’s not all that well-known. The estates producing tannat in the south-west are reasonably large, plus flat vineyards are easily mechanised – so cost of production is not that huge. As an area, it’s incredibly agricultural, lots of people there are real farmers. They have a very different mindset. It’s not like Burgundy, where everyone is trying to make as much money as possible, it's about covering costs, but the wines are so well made. So much so, they used to be blended into Bordeaux. 

I didn’t know that. What’s something you wish more people knew about French Country wines? 

I think people are not always aware of just how diverse the place is, and how many styles of wine they produce there. When we bring producers over to do tastings with The Wine Society, people are constantly surprised. You’ve got sparkling wine, fortified wine... people think it’s just cheap and cheerful, but there’s so much more to discover. 

Hannah Crosbie

Content writer

Hannah Crosbie

Hannah has written about wine for a variety of retailers, magazines and national newspapers. She occasionally works as a content writer for The Society.

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