FRENCH, WITHOUT FEARS
James Buchan says forget Australia,
New Zealand and the Americas; France is still the only producer of great wine
A RECENT catalogue from Oddbins, a wine merchant with 184 shops in the towns of this country, began like this:
There are certain poor souls out there who will fall to the floor in a dead faint before the third syllable of Mouton-Rothschild has been decanted from your mouth. And, as you fan them back to consciousness with the latest price list from Sniff, Cork & Sneer (`vintners to the well-to-do'), you should also be warned that discussing great Burgundies in hushed, reverential tones may also reduce these hapless beings to indecipherable gib- berings and hot flushes. These are 'classics', you see.
In place of these exhausted, snobbish and expensive wines, Oddbins is offering what it calls 'new classics'. These include a co-operative Vin de Pays d'Oc called Cuvee Ramadaire, at £2.99 a bottle, and an Australian white wine called Vine Vale Chardonnay for £3.99 a bottle.
What is happening here? For just over 800 years, since the dowry of Eleanor of Aquitaine passed to the Plantagenets, we British have drunk red wine from the country about Bordeaux. To describe it we use an old French word, claret. To main- tain access to the vineyards, we fought the French Crown for 100 years and we know as much about the wines, at least from the Mecloc and Graves, as the French do. Was it for 'new classics' that Talbot and his son died on the bloody sands of the Dordogne on the morning of 17 July, 1453? For Cuvee Ramadaire?
Our expertise in wine took 800 years to make, but was ruined in a single decade, the 1980s, engulfed in bad yin de pays from France and industrial varietals from the New World and Antipodes. Even a good wine merchant such as Berry Bros & Rudd, which rebuilt a liquor business destroyed by Prohibition when Charles Walter Berry bought the entire 1933 crop of Château Beychevelle at 1/9d a bottle, has taken to making questionable offers to its clientele. In its Christmas list, Berry's describes the 1971 Château Haut-Brion as `quite simply the best'. Quite simply, it is not.
The shunning of claret is all the more perverse in that the growers of Bordeaux produced, in 1988, 1989 and 1990, three vintages that are rather unlikely to be matched in the remainder of our lifetimes. Even old-timers believe these wines are better than the celestial trio of 1947, 1948 and 1949, which are anyway suffused in memory by the intoxicating sense of peace after war. The Bordeaux vintages of 1991 and 1992 have a dismal reputation; and 1993, when you could see the mildew on the grapes in August, does not promise well, to put it mildly.
The prudent thing for English people to be doing is to overlook the Tierra del Fuego cabernet (`On the morning of February 20, the 200-knot winds that had so bedevilled the vendimia dropped for a blessed hour, and those growers who made a careful selection — and survived the tragic loss of the Veronica Peron in the Magellan Strait— have produced wines which etc.') and buy every good Bordeaux of the late 1980s they can afford before the French and Americans drink them all up. Forget Oddbins and Berry's and The Spec- tator Wine Club and order the stuff, if nec- essary, from Bordeaux. Rates of interest are such that there is only small opportuni- ty cost in buying claret and storing it at home. You will also look after it much bet- ter than most British wine merchants: at my nearest off-licence, the bottles are hot to the touch.
Why have we abandoned these good wines? I have questioned people and heard four arguments, all false or trivial.
The first is that good Bordeaux is expensive: you-can't-get-a-decent-bottle- of-claret-for-under-twenty-quid. In reality, it is much more 'affordable' in England than it was ten years ago: the 1990 is much more expensive than was the 1982, but British salaries have increased even more despite the devaluation of sterling in 1992. Wine imported into England has passed through so many grasping hands courtier, broker, wholesaler, retailer, the Customs and Excise — that very little of a £2.99 supermarket price actually rewards the making of wine. Because many of the charges are fixed, a £10 bottle will not be three times the wine but about ten times.
It is often said in England (and this is one of the many platitudes repeated in Margaret Thatcher's memoirs) that French agriculture is inefficient. In fact, the good vineyards of Bordeaux are by far the most efficient legal farm enterprises in the world. If you go to St Emilion, you'll see, coming into the town from the Bordeaux highway, a run-down Edwardian chateau called Ausone with a tiny and steep patch of very twisted vines. From this allotment of 193/4 acres, Ausone makes 2,000 cases a year of red wine which it sells in the town for 680 francs a bottle (for the 1990). The place has almost no capital employed, no machines, merely the old vines, intelli- gence, memory and some cold and fully amortised limestone caves. It adds £80 in value to three-quarters of a litre of grape juice. That's what I call efficiency.
But who, runs the second argument, can afford to pay even £10 a bottle for every- day drinking? The answer is, of course, that everyday drinking is water or, at a pinch, beer. It is now all but impossible to get a cocktail in a bourgeois household in England — Scotland, mercifully, is differ- ent — except wine: poor, bland, machine- made American or New Zealand wine or yin ordinaire which is there to get you not at all drunk and represent a purely formal British hospitality. I accept that it would be expensive to give your neighbours L'Angelus in volumes sufficient to get them high, but better to give them whisky, the only product of these islands that is indisputably the best of its class. When I was a child, the food in the neighbouring houses was foul but the drink was OK: now both are disgusting.
The third argument is more refined: Bordeaux is tainted by a patrimonial Britishness from which the 'new classics' are delightfully free. As the passage from Oddbins I quoted suggests, claret is associ- ated with a class-bound, masculine exper- tise, which is thought to h hard to acquire and not worth acquiring anyway. It is true that bourgeois Englishmen have a fatal tendency to create a club out of their activities; and, madmen that they are, they treat claret like game and hang it till it turns brown. But the lady on television who sips and giggles and smacks her lips and says "mmmm, landfills in winter, mmmm, plutonium dioxide" is parading an expertise no less esoteric than that of the bores of Pall Mall, and with the impor- tant difference that she is talking absolute nonsense. If you are put off claret by its associations of class, sex and nationality, you might subscribe to an American maga- zine called The Wine Advocate ($65 a year; fax 0101 410-357 4504) which surveys all the world's wines with great generosity, but somehow seems to concentrate on Bordeaux.
There remains the paranoiac argument that the wine merchants and wine writers promoting their repellent liquids really do know what they are talking about, and are happy to pour the public what it thinks it wants so as to keep the claret for them- selves. I doubt these people are so cynical: the new merchants and experts who sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s are just amateurs in the great British tradition. The stores identified correctly a new popu- lation of wine-drinkers, but lacked the capi- tal, knowledge and business relationships to buy these people good French wine. Unfortunately, they have caused old-fash- ioned houses such as Berry's to lose their nerve.
In these circumstances, I suppose I should just go quietly, pleased there is not more competition for good Bordeaux: the vineyards are, after all, fully planted and have been for years. I should shut up and enjoy wines whose names play like foun- tains in my imagination (or rather, my woodshed) — L'Angelus 1990, Lynch- Bages 1990, Leoville-Barton 1990, Chasse- Spleen 1989, Larmande 1988 — drink them with my ever-loving or serve them to thun- der-struck friends.
But out of conscience, and in the spirit of such articles as these and of the season, I offer a Christmas list of wines to be bought for £10 or less or a bit more in London, with my tasting notes: Red Ch. Fontenil 1990 OK Ch Chasse-Spleen 1990 Better Ch. Grand-Pontet 1990 Nice
Ch. La Lagune 1989 Good Ch. Pavie-Macquin 1990 Very good
Ch. de Malle 1988 (halves) Very good