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Help the French


YOU MIGHT have read recently in the press about concerns being expressed by the French about the worldwide sales of their wines.


In Britain , while they have held up comparatively well in restaurants, their share of the now all-important supermarket business has been savaged by the wines of Australia , California , Chile and South Africa .


It seems that the historic appellation contrôlée (a.c.) system, a classification based on traditional wines made from traditional grapes in the traditional way, has proved unintelligible to the average consumer.


What he or she is looking for is a simple label, saying from which grape the wine is made, thus giving some clue about the final taste.


So far in France, the idea of actually mentioning a grape variety on a label is perceived to be a heresy, permitted only in Alsace (on the fringes of French civilisation) and for the humble vins de pays, which were originally conceived as a means of draining the wine-lake of basic table wine.


The first idea to spring from the fertile brain of René Renou, a grower from the Loire Valley who currently leads the French wine trade, was to raise the status of about half the a.c. wines to a new position of super a.c.


This proved a mighty joke for wine importers around the world, and no laughing matter for those growers whose standing would effectively be lowered by not being among those being raised. I have the feeling that we will hear little more of this scheme.


The second idea is more from the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em school. For the first time, the two prestige regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy will be able to produce vin de pays; so an unappealing Bordeaux Rouge can now dress itself up in the glad rags of a Vin de Pays de la Gironde Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot or a Bourgogne Blanc may be turned into a Vin de Pays de la Côte d’Or Chardonnay.


Even more daring is the suggestion that, in future, producers can use oak chips to impart flavour to the wine.


Previously, this was expressly forbidden, except on an experimental basis. Indeed, anyone discovered following this decadent but cost-effective practice ran the risk of vinous excommunication. (While it might have been forbidden, I am told that it was widely used in Burgundy .)


I think these moves will do little to increase the sales of French wine, though there are many good reasons for the faithful to stick with them.


Here are some that I have recently enjoyed: Grange de Segure Fitou 2002, a full-bodied soft red from the south, which you should be able to find in Sainsbury’s until 15 September, reduced from £6.99 to £4.49.


For those who are keen on knowing the grape varieties, this is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Also on offer there are J. P. Chenet’s Cabernet Syrah 2003 (reduced from £3.89 to £2.99). Don’t be put off by the bizarrely shaped bottle; this wine recently saw me through a party.


Tesco has recently launched a range of wines under the Tesco Finest label, including an excellent Chablis 1er cru at £9.97. If there is an Indian summer, one of my favourite rosés is Majestic’s Château des Sours, Bordeaux 2002 at £7.47. I am also a big fan of its soft but spicy Rhône wine, La Vieille Ferme Côtes de Ventoux 2001 at £4.99.


It seems as if France needs all the help we can offer.

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