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Sebastian Payne MW on why we’re still in love with French wine

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Sebastian Payne MW Sebastian Payne MW / 14 April 2021

Members still buy more wine from France than any other country, despite the fact that there's so much more competition these days. Sebastian ponders on why this love affair with its wines endures, even if it there might be a few tiffs along the way!


Current travel restrictions make us realise just how much we miss being able to enjoy experiences like this
Current travel restrictions make us realise just how much we miss being able to enjoy experiences like this

Covid restrictions have made me realise how much I miss regular visits to France. I know our nearest neighbours can annoy us at times (and let's not even talk about Macron's recent comments on the AstraZeneca vaccine), but as a nation, they are more often inspiring and live in a blessed country, which makes more wonderful wines than other parts of the world. Sometimes I think we are guilty of taking this for granted.

Our Wine Champions blind tastings and a neighbour's unsolicited enthusiastic endorsement recently confirmed what an admirable and delightful wine good Muscadet can be, for instance. A wine you can return to again and again. Is it over-familiarity or the wine trade's cynical need for the cheapest version available that made us forget this?

In spite of the multiplicity of pinot noir wines all over the world, red Burgundy can be incomparably enthralling. There is not enough of it, it is true, but previously overlooked names like Marsannay, Côte de Nuits-Villages, Santenay or the over-familiar Beaune are often marvellous and affordable. If you don't care for the current price of Puligny or Meursault, then Mâcon, Saint-Véran and straight Bourgogne Blanc often give me more pleasure than other chardonnays for the money, though South Africa keeps them on their toes and Chile has good chardonnay but is different in style.

Tim Sykes sources some great wines among Bordeaux's petits châteaux
Tim Sykes sources some great wines among Bordeaux's petits châteaux

Decades ago so-called 'petits châteaux' Bordeaux clarets (from the less grand estates) were a minefield. With the help, no doubt, of climate change and better vineyard management, Tim Sykes now finds lots of splendid clarets below £10 a bottle, which offer character and refreshing digestibilty you will not find rivalled, certainly in volume terms, elsewhere. Certainly top châteaux come at a price but they have always been sought after by the rest of the world and are still the yardsticks of finesse and sheer quality growers of cabernet and merlot from all over the world want to match or beat.

Marcel understands the byways of southern French vineyards better than or as well as any in the business. Follow him with confidence in the exciting worlds of Languedoc-Roussillon and the South West. Corbières, to take one example, is hard to beat for value in my view.

Yes, the snag is that the wines come under too many different names. This is still a besetting problem I was constantly up against as Italian wine buyer too, and one which Australians successfully exploited by reducing labels to brands of cabernet, merlot, shiraz and chardonnay and so on, and by blending across regions that were less defended by local pride and traditions. But surely we can live in both worlds. Most things worthwhile are a little bit complicated and grow on acquaintance. Like people.

Overlooking Alsace
'I find when I buy a case of Alsace wines it disappears amazingly quickly!

Alsace prices are certainly influenced by proximity to so many high-earning Eurocrats, but I find that when I buy a case of Alsace wine it disappears amazingly quickly because we like it so much. I am just about to take delivery of my mixed case of 2018 Côtes-du-Rhône Villages. It won't last long either.

Many French wine producers have traditionally been fiercely parochial, almost ridiculously so. I remember a Bordeaux négociant who got lost driving to Fronsac, and several who knew nothing about Burgundy, let alone the new world, and were not quite sure where Sancerre came from. This is no longer the case with subsequent generations who travel widely. But such single-minded concentration on what they knew was of course one reason France produced so many wines with distinctive personality and sense of place that you could not find elsewhere.

What else would you expect or want from a country which de Gaulle said makes 200 varieties of cheese?

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