Sunday, August 31, 2008

Bottle Shock

By some coincidence, the movie Bottle Shock was released on the day I went to California’s Napa Valley. Bottle Shock, a small but generally well-reviewed film starring such dependable B-listers as Bill Pullman and Alan Rickman, tells the story of one of the wine world’s most famous events: the so-called Judgement of Paris. In 1976, a young British wine dealer called Steven Spurrier who had failed to make much headway in cracking the French wine establishment had a bright idea.

The wines of California were growing in popularity across the Atlantic. But they were still derided by the French. Supposing he organised a blind tasting at which French wine experts judged French and Californian wines? The experts would not be told which wines they were trying. But if their dismissal of California wines was based on a genuine inferiority of taste, then that should not matter. The wines would come out bottom at the tasting anyway.

Spurrier managed to persuade the French experts to agree. And predictably, not only did California wines come out on top in many cases but it was also clear that the French really could not tell the difference. In one celebrated case, a French expert declared “what a relief it is to drink a good French wine” while drinking one from California. A journalist from an American newsmagazine was present at the tasting and his story made waves in the US. Other papers picked up the news and though the French stuck to their view, the Paris tasting gave California wine-makers the confidence to go ahead and compete forcefully on the world stage.

It is an unlikely subject for a Hollywood movie though given the recent success of Sideways and Mondovino perhaps wine is such a hot subject that people will want to see the movie anyway. And if the film makes him famous among a wider audience, Spurrier may not mind that Alan Rickman plays him with what the New York Times critic describes as a “parched low voice and an air of beleaguered pomposity.”

I thought of Bottle Shock because the French have not really changed their minds about California wine. They may be polite about it in public and may even have invested in California vineyards but the private disdain persists. The French criticism of California wines are based around the following points: n French wine is an agricultural product. Its quality depends largely on the soil on which the grapes are grown. The great Bordeaux vineyards, for instance, such names as Mouton, Lafitte or Haut Brion, have been renowned for producing excellent wine for centuries. This is because the vineyards themselves have such perfect soil that the grapes that grow there will yield amazing wine.

California wine, the French say, is an industrial product. There are few historically revered vineyards. Many famous wines are grown on land that its owners have purchased over the last ten or twenty years. In Napa, the producers don’t even grow all their own grapes but buy them from local farmers. So where is the sense of an agricultural product emerging from special soil? These wines are not based on the vineyard but on the brand name. Wine makers use science and tricks to create ‘special’ wines from ordinary grapes. n French wines are about elegance. California wines are about power. Ever since the influential wine writer Robert Parker began laying down the law, California wines have become more and more intense and full of fruit. Such wines, say the French, lack the subtlety of truly great wines. Speaking for myself, I have little time for old world snobbery and the French claim to historical prominence. If a wine is good, how does it matter how old the vineyard is?

On the other hand, I do tend to prefer the elegance of French wines over many of the fruit bombs that come out of California. Also, I don’t think that the French tendency to treat wine as an agricultural product is mere hype. Visiting the Burgundy vineyards, I saw myself how seriously the wine-makers took the soil. Often they would argue that the wine from the first row of grapes would be better than the wine from the second and third because the soil was better in the front. It is hard for the Californians to take that line because they don’t treat their vineyards as being that special. California wine makers dispute some of this. Besides, they argue, if French wine is so much better, then why did Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the owner of Mouton Rothschild, one of the great wines of Bordeaux, rush to make wine in California?

There are trendier, more expensive and better wines in California but few have the historical importance of Opus One. In 1978, Robert Mondavi, the leading California wine figure (he died a few months ago) was invited to Mouton by Philippe de Rothschild. Baron Philippe proposed a joint venture in California. Mondavi agreed and the two men set up a 50-50 partnership.

In 1981 Mondavi sold 35 acres of one of his vineyards in the Napa Valley to the venture. In 1983, another 50 acres were purchased. And in 1984, they acquired a 49-acre vineyard. Altogether, the venture had 134 acres. But there was no sense of designated vineyards with great soil like Mouton. Philippe de Rothschild called the wine Opus One and it quickly went on to get the highest prices ever for a California wine. The wine was subtler than many of its California contemporaries but the prices were a consequence of the brand values of Mondavi and Rothschild.

These days, Opus One is rarely talked of in the same breath as such great California names as Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate but it remains one of the big boys. Its wines seem to me to be too intensely fruit-flavoured to bear comparison with Mouton itself but such is Robert Parker’s influence that even Bordeaux wine makers are making more intense wines so some of the old California-Bordeaux distinctions have broken down.

The winery itself is beautiful and they gave me both the 2001 and the 2004 vintages to drink. I thought both wines were very good but nobody I spoke to at the winery had any answer to the question about the importance of soil. If the Rothschilds believe they can produce great wine by buying parcels of land all over California, then what makes Mouton so great? In France, the Rothschilds make a different claim. They say that their wine is exceptional because Mouton is one of the best vineyards on earth. Both positions cannot simultaneously be valid.

Among the other wineries I visited was the spectacularly beautiful and hilly Spring Mountain vineyard. Spring Mountain is owned by a Swiss banker who has lavished funds on it, buying two other adjacent vineyards to create a huge estate. I spoke to Jac Cole, the wine-maker and was intrigued to find that his position was closer to the French wine-makers I had met. Cole reckons that good wine is a creation of ‘terroir,’ of the soil and the temperature mainly. He grows his grapes all over the vineyards and then harvests them in lots. He made me taste the wine from four different lots to demonstrate how the same grapes could yield such different wines in the same year only because they were cultivated a few hundred yards apart from each other. Of course he was right. There were huge variations in taste between each lot which he attributed to the soil, to altitude and temperature (parts of the vineyard are cooler than the rest).

His job as wine-maker, he said, was to take the different lots and to create a blend that reflected the best of each batch of grapes. “You could say that I am a flower arranger,” he said. “I arrange flowers that have already been grown.” Later, he expanded that to include the image of himself as a conductor of an orchestra. But even then, he conceded, the score is already written. The top Spring Mountain wine was – to my untutored palate at least – the equal of Opus One. So clearly the traditional, French-style approach to wine-making works in California as well.

But even after I had finished touring the vineyards, I was left with no answers to the big questions. Is California now better than France? (My instinct is to say no.) Does the vineyard not matter as much as the French say it does? In the end, it boils down to taste. If we drink it and we like it then it’s good. If we don’t like it, then no matter what anybody says, it is not good. Wine is about taste. And taste is personal and subjective.

Vir Sanghvi, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, India

Hong Kong, France sign memo on cooperation in wine-related businesses

HONG KONG,(Xinhua) -- Hong Kong and France signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cooperation in wine-related businesses on Tuesday.

The Hong Kong-France Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in Wine-related Businesses was signed by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development of HKSAR government Rita Lau and French Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries Michel Barnier.

This first MOU that Hong Kong had signed on the subject, demonstrated the commitment of both sides to encourage wine- related businesses, Financial Secretary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) John Tsang said at the signing ceremony.

Tsang said under the memorandum, Hong Kong and France would facilitate and promote trade in wine. The two sides would strengthen co-operation, exchanges and the sharing of experience in areas including the stimulation of wine-related trading and investment activities, wine education and manpower training, promotion of wine-related tourism and wine culture, as well as customs cooperation against counterfeit wine.

He said France is the largest supplier of wine imports into Hong Kong, accounting for about 30 percent of Hong Kong's imported wines in 2007. In terms of value, French wine represented about 57percent of all wine imports to Hong Kong last year, with a growth rate of 108 percent compared with 2006.

Also speaking at the signing ceremony, the French Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries, Michel Barnier, said the MOU would produce a win-win solution for Hong Kong and France.

He believed France's "unique expertise and large diversity in production" made it the reference partner for wine trade and promotion, Barnier said.

He also noted that with its logistical and financial expertise, its unique knowledge of the Chinese mainland's market as well as the strength of its hospitality and retail sectors, Hong Kong is "the natural wine hub for Asia and is well positioned to catch the emerging business opportunities of the fastest growing international wine market."

Hong Kong became the first free wine port among major economies with the abolition of wine duty earlier this year. Since then, there has been solid growth in wine imports, wine auctions with record-breaking sales and announcements by renowned companies to expand their wine trading, distribution and storage business in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's first International Wine Fair organized by the Trade Development Council of Hong Kong from Aug. 14 to 16, attracted more than 240 exhibitors from more than 25countries and regions as well as 8,800 buyers from 55 countries and regions.

Bi Mingxin

French wine export volumes fall, but values rise

French wine producers exported less wine in the first half of this year but got more for it than a year earlier as overseas markets opted for more expensive wines, a report said.

Ubifrance, the French export development agency, said export volumes fell 8.7 percent in the six months through June. However, the value of French wine sent overseas increased by 8.2 percent to 3.2 billion euros ($4.7 billion).

The author of the report, Herve Henrotte, warned against celebrating the rich returns, which "concerns only a small category of products, hiding a less euphoric reality."

While fine Bordeaux and other vintage wines are popular exports, lower-quality wines and lesser-known wine regions struggle against competitors from countries such as Australia, Chile and the United States.

And the strong euro, which makes European wines more expensive for U.S. consumers, combined with global economic woes to depress overseas sales at the lower end of the market.

Another worry came from the star product of the French wine industry, Champagne, which produced less than sparkling results with a drop in both volume and value by 4.2 percent and 1.3 percent respectively.

In contrast, exports of sparkling wines from the Loire valley, Alsace and Saumur "were very dynamic," the agency said in a report released Monday.

Vin de Pays, or country wines, lost favor in the U.K., U.S. and Germany -- markets that saw an increase in upmarket wines belonging to the expensive AOC, or Appellation d'Origine Controlee, category.

Exports of table wines were hit by Russia's switch to Moldovan wines.


River cruise with a carbon-free conscience

The route passes through some of France's most picturesque rivers and canals Photo: Getty

The Rhone, like all great rivers, has banks lined with great towns Photo: Getty

The route takes in Camargue, famous for its beautiful horses Photo: Getty

Fine French wines and cheeses keep the passengers thoroughly content

On a luxury barge holiday in the South of France Max Davidson finds that fun can coexist with planetary survival.

What goes at 200mph, then 2mph, is fuelled by fine French wine and leaves no footprint? Answer: a “carbon-neutral France” holiday devised by a tour operator with an eye for the eco-conscious 21st-century zeitgeist.

No cars or planes for the passengers gathered on L’Impressionniste, a luxury barge that plies the canals and rivers of the South of France, between Agde and Avignon. We may have arrived by high-speed train – Eurostar to Paris, then the TGV to Montpellier – but from now on we will be progressing at the speed of a well-fed French snail.

You can almost see the stress dropping from the faces of the passengers as the barge looses its moorings and the sunlight dapples the water and the first champagne cork pops on the sun-deck.

The 168-mile Canal du Midi, overhung with plane trees, is one of the glories of southern France: it was originally built as a trade route, a short cut from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, but now has the verdant languor of a rural backwater. Contented ducks snooze in the shadow of the branches. Swallows swoop overhead. There is a smell of new-mown hay from the fields.

“Look!” I say, as something stirs on the bank. “A rabbit!”

“Don’t say that word,” yelps the captain, Nicholas, putting his hands to his ears. “Not on ship. It’s unlucky.”

“What? You mean French sailors are superstitious about rab-”

“Stop it. You may only refer to 'small fluffy animals with long ears’.” At which the poor man starts hopping about like a ham actor at the mention of the Scottish play. All very odd.

But what sybaritic pleasures lie in wait for us once the unmentionability of rabbits has been made clear. Our cabin, the Cézanne, is not quite as luxurious as the Renoir next door, but it is light and airy and appropriately decorated, with a still life of Provençal apples to whet our appetites for dinner.

Ah yes, dinner. They take dinner seriously on L’Impressionniste – the only thing taken more seriously is lunch. While the chef, James, works his wizardry in the galley, two jolly women from Shropshire provide the running commentary.

“Our white wine today will be a Côtes du Luberon from the Domaine Chasson,” announces Sarah. “The red wine will be a Saint Chignian.” Two bottles of each have already been uncorked; with only eight passengers to drink them, they are setting a cracking pace.

“And the cheeses…” Bonnie squints at her crib-sheet. “We have a Saint-Nectaire, which comes from the Auvergne, and has a grey rind, and a Bresse Bleu, which is a pasteurised blue cheese produced in the South of France.”

The basic idea, consistent with the carbon-neutral theme, is to consume as much local produce as possible. On the Etang Thau, a salt-water lagoon, we tuck into the local oysters, followed by thielles, Cornish-pastie type pies stuffed with octopus and tomatoes. In the Camargue, it is riz de Camargue and steaks from the famous local bulls.

On shore, we visit the Noilly-Prat factory in Marseillan and, later, a vineyard at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, near Avignon, where a master wine-taster, one of those Cyrano-nosed Frenchmen who could find the spittoon from 20 yards, puts us through our paces.

But this is not, by and large, a foodie holiday. Always reassuring to know that you will be well fed and watered, of course, but it is the lazy pleasures of a canal cruise that etch themselves in the memory.

After leaving the Canal du Midi, we head east, along another canal, towards the Camargue and the Rhône. The plane trees give way to marshlands, and the sea is only a few miles away. A solitary flamingo flaps towards the setting sun. A catamaran glides past, with a woman doing aerobics on deck. An old man slumbers over his fishing-rod.

One afternoon, we take a detour into the picturesque village of Pezenas, where Molière wrote many of his plays. Another afternoon, we cycle through the sand dunes towards the Mediterranean and take a pre-dinner swim. The boat goes so slowly that at times it seems to be standing still. But every day brings something different.

The white horses of the Camargue are famous the world over, but to see a pair of them shoot out of the tall grass and gallop along the bank, manes fanned by the wind, is a magical experience. On the opposite bank, in a timeless vignette of rural life, a thatcher in dungarees bundles up the sheaves of hay, watched by his dog.

The Rhône itself is a great beast of river, far wider than I had expected. At times, it is lily-pond still; at others, whipped up by the famous mistral, the north wind that blows down the Rhône valley, it is so choppy that Nicholas, at the helm, looks like Captain Ahab battling the waves.

Like all great rivers, its banks are lined by great towns, which have grown with the centuries. The second half of the week turns into a kind of A-Z – or rather A-A – of French walled cities: starting with Aigues-Mortes, fortified by the Crusaders; Arles, where Van Gogh shared a house with Gauguin; and Avignon, with its famous bridge, overlooked by the craggy Palais des Papes.

The human landscape is equally beguiling, with our fellow passengers proving a glorious mixture of the clubbable and the eccentric. The young couple from Brisbane are visiting Europe for the first time. The banker from Toronto keeps surreptitiously checking the Dow Jones on his BlackBerry. Lily, who divides her time between Canada and Barbados, is a shopaholic.

On the last night, we have a captain’s dinner, dressed in our glad rags, then dance the night away on deck, under a starry sky, with the lights of Avignon glowing in the distance and the dark, silent river gliding past.

“We shall miss L’Impressionniste,” I tell Nicholas, putting a drunken arm around his shoulder. I was feeling no pain – and, having opted for a carbon-neutral holiday, no eco guilt either.

Getting there
A six-night cruise on L’Impressionniste between Agde and Avignon costs from £2,471 per person with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213; for Sunday departures until November 4. Price includes Eurostar and TGV tickets, transfers, tours and full board in a junior suite.