TO MAKE sense of new trends in wine drinking, a line needs tobe drawn between the sorts of wine people prefer to drink at home and those they are likely to order in a restaurant.
In the take-home trade and, to some extent, in by-the-glass sales over the bar, France's premier position is being challenged by the New World. The extrovert, low-acid wines of Australia in particular have immediate appeal because they are easy to enjoy on their own. But, for the restaurateur, making a buying decision about a wine without trying it with food is a dangerous game.
A man with strong views on the subject is Neville Blech, who wears two hats, as the owner of London's Mijanou restaurant and as the head of the Wine Treasury, specialist independent shipper of some of the most individual wines on the market from the classic heartlands of France to the New World.
He says: "To my mind, wine is an accompaniment to food and that should be the first criterion when drinking it. When I attend tastings I ask myself, 'what am I going to eat with this?' And with some wines, which are perfectly nice drinks, I'll say I couldn't eat anything with them and often I couldn't finish a bottle."
For Blech this crucial criticism applies even to New Zealand wines, currently among the most highly praised examples from the New World. "A lot of the New Zealand Chardonnays have too much tropical fruit. And although I'll buy as much Cloudy Bay Chardonnay as I can lay my hands on, they are really not the right wines for modern British cuisine."
France still leads the way when it comes to wines which are the most natural partners for food, because they have that touch of refreshing acidity which both "lifts" a dish and encourages the customer to finish the bottle and order a second. In the crucial £40-£60 per case price band France sees off much of the competition - it currently accounts for 50% of all wine sales in the UK on-trade.
The South of France is hot news right now, with customers recognising the excellent vignerons in Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and the south-west who are making wines of real character at kind prices.
Because of the continuing weakness of sterling against the French franc, there is not much that is palatable at under £40 a case, but one exception is the 1993 Côtes de Gascogne blanc from Yves Grassa's Domaine de Rieux, (£33 before vat). Made from 80% Ugni Blanc (giving clean, incisive acidity) and 20% Colombard (contributing a round fruitiness), this is a highly dependable all-purpose white as good with creamy pasta as with river fish. For the same money, the 1993 from the neighbouring Domaine du Rey reverses the grape mix; with 80% Colombard, it's a softer just off-dry wine, ideal as an aperitif and a surprisingly successful foil to rich sweetbreads.
The profit opportunity here is obvious. Both wines have a net cost of about £3.30 a bottle including VAT, but could be sold on the table for £7.50 to £8.50, depending on the overheads and style of the operation.
Down in Languedoc-Roussillon, near Beziers, a duo of red and rosé wines from Pierre Elie's Chemins de Bassac are altogether exceptional. This estate was discovered by Neville Blech at last year's Foire de Paris, a French consumer exhibition. Both wines are from the 1992 vintage, cost £51.24 a case and show how good vins de pays from the byways of southern France can be, especially if they are made from classic grape varieties.
The red - half Cabernet Sauvignon, half Syrah - is full of warm southern flavours, but elegant with it and underpinned by excellent acidity. The rosé is the best I have tasted this spring. The colour is more a translucent carmine than salmon pink, there's gorgeous mouth-enveloping fruit thanks to a proportion of Grenache in the blend and, as the weather warms up, this full rosé would make an ideal partner for carré d'agneau aux lentilles if your customers are not in the mood for red.
The modernist chic label is as classy as the wine in the bottle which would certainly justify selling it for £12 on the table. If, however, you don't want to shoot through the £10 per bottle sales ceiling, look east to a sharply priced Vin du Pays de Vaucluse rouge called Côteau des Garances just shipped by Adnams. The 1993 (a good, sunny vintage for those who picked early) is juicy and delicious, and a steal at £40.80 a case.
For a special dinner, a red wine from one of the new-wave producers in the quieter corners of Provence makes an interesting alternative to the fashionable and now pricy Domaine Tempier in Bandol.
The best I know is the 1992 Cuvée Truffiäre from Philippe Bieler's Chƒteau Routas in the Côteaux Varois, north of the French Riviera.
Priced at £78 a case and made from 35- to 40-year-old Cabernet and Syrah, this is a wine of real ripeness and concentration. As Paul Henderson, proprietor of Gidleigh Park, Chagford, Devon, who stocks the Truffiäre says: "If Bieler can produce that good a wine in 1992 (an indifferent vintage) it should be exceptional in a good year." Contact Jasper Morris at Morris & Verdin for details.
Bordeaux, with its haughty image of grand chƒteaux and famous appellations, may seem an unlikely source of good-value wines, but the region has been going through hard times in the wake of two reputedly poor vintages in 1991 and 1992 - lots of wine to sell and few customers.
With a strong sense of self-renewal, a younger generation of vignerons, some of whom came to wine as a second career, are trying that much harder and are now fashioning some excellent keenly-priced wines particularly at the basic Bordeaux appellation level.
A cost-saving alternative to Sancerre is the 1992 Chƒteau La Bertrande Sauvignon from Cadillac (£46.92), a great wine for food: racy, invigorating but with a full flavour to match and uplift a fatty dish such as rillette.
Moving up to the £70-£75 a case mark, the Graves district is a happy hunting ground. Christian Aunay, an ex-lawyer, and his wife Sylvie decided to become vignerons in 1988 when they bought Chƒteau Le Clec. Adnams lists their 1992 white Graves. I have not tasted it yet, but the reliable Simon Loftus, Adnam's buyer, says this barrel-fermented Sémillon-Sauvignon blend is delicious.
Of the red wine from the same vineyard, his typically graphic comment is: "Half Cabernet, half Merlot, with aromas of red fruits, earth and chestnuts, it reminds me of Chianti." And up in the northern Bas-Médoc, Jean Guion, a Parisian interior designer, bought Chƒteau Rollan de By at Begadan in the late 1980s. His 1991 (£72.12 a case) is a stunning wine of ripe berry aromas from a so-called "off" year.
The Beaujolais and Mƒconnais are the affordable faces of Burgundy, although Beaujolais is really a separate district in its own right.
The best wines - priced in the £50-£80 a case band - are hardly bargains, but they make ideal restaurant selections, showing all their fruit as soon as the cork is drawn. They are shaped by a fine elegant acidity that suits food so well, from the refined creations of modern cooking to the more robust flavours of charcuterie and, above all, cheese.
Finding the best is another matter, as there is a great deal of dross from these overworked vineyards. Put yourself in the hands of a Beaujolais specialist such as Chris Piper of Christopher Piper Wines who, as well as being a West of England wine merchant, is also the winemaker at the excellent Chƒteau des Tours in Brouilly, one of the best estates from a Beaujolais cru on the market.
As Piper says: "The surprising thing is that so many wines from the great producers of the Beaujolais and Mƒconnais have never been imported into the UK, although when one realises just how much the Beaujolais market in this country is controlled by the negociants (shipper-merchants) and co-operatives, maybe it is not quite so extraordinary."
Piper's own selections are exemplary, the wines reflecting the true characteristics of each village and the individual stamp of each winemaker. In Beaujolais, the vintages change so quickly that the name of the estate and vigneron are often a better guide to quality.
From the Piper list, earmark the exceptionally deep-flavoured 1992 Beaujolais Villages of Jean-Charles Pivot (£55.32 a case); the 1991 Brouilly Chƒteau des Tours (£71.28) and the extremely rich 1991 Moulin-à-Vent Domaine des Vignes du Tremblay made from 60-year-old vines by Paul Janin (£86.16).
For an opulent Mƒcon Blanc Villages of peachy fruitiness at around £5 a bottle, Guy Saumaize's Domaine des Maillettes is a winner, regardless of the vintage. As a nurseryman, he grows some of the healthiest grapes in the region. The 1991 Maillettes (£64.20) with three years' bottle age is drinking beautifully now.
German Wines for all their excellence in the higher late-picked categories are notoriously difficult to sell in restaurants. But at the lower end of the price spectrum, under a simple Landwein label, I recently came across two items which would make ideal pub pouring wines in a scented, medium- dry style.
The quality-conscious Rheinberg Kellerei at Bingen has produced a generic Mosel and a Rhine wine, both medium dry, which are widely available at under £3 per litre bottle. The blends in both cases are a mish-mash of grapes, but the results in the glass are highly palatable.
And finally a little bit of self-indulgence from California to enliven the upper end of your wine list. The comically named Duxoup Wine Works in Dry Creek, Sonoma, is a tiny "cottage industry" operation producing a mere 2,000 cases a year. Proprietors Andy and Deborah Cutter make wine to the sound of opera and name their barrels after Marx Brothers characters. Only such a quirky couple could make a wine called Charbono, which means carbon in Italian.
Charbono is in fact an indigenous grape that grows well in the north California climate of hot days and cool nights. The 1991, made from 100-year-old vines, is as dark as Eygpt's night, but is floral, well-balanced and will age superbly. This is a delightful and rare Californian wine at £10 a bottle (before VAT) from - who else?- Bibendum Wine. o
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