French fancies

Image of Jancis Robinson

I think it’s fair to say that the people any group of professionals will be most keen to impress are their peers. This is why I’m always so interested in an initiative called Absolutely Cracking Wines from France. Most years since 2003 British wine writers have been asked to nominate three “absolutely cracking” French wines in various price categories for a big communal tasting.

This year’s selection was even more interesting because, for the first time, the top UK sommeliers were asked to make selections, although they were shielded from the writers’ financial constraints of Under £8, £8-15 and £15+, and simply asked to nominate “a Christmas white, red and sparkling or sweet wine”. Naturally, we all chose those wines we feel are cutting edge, showing we’re vinously on trend.

With this in mind, here are the trends that emerged from this year’s recent Absolutely Cracking selection (given the inglorious hashtag #abcrack). The 156 wines ranged in price from £4.79 for Jamie Goode’s Ardèche Gamay from Marks & Spencer to £42.50 for Egly-Ouriet’s Grand Cru champagne from Vine Trail chosen by Igor Sotric, sommelier at China Tang.

The Wine Society is the insiders’ UK wine merchant of choice. This co-operative buying organisation was cited no fewer than 22 times, streets ahead of its nearest rival as supplier: Majestic gathered 10 mentions and Marks & Spencer and Les Caves de Pyrène nine each.

The tasting took place at Paramount on the 31st floor of Centre Point in central London, incidentally affording tasters a fine view of the building’s rival skyscraper The Shard, at the foot of which we knew Les Caves de Pyrène were holding a concurrent tasting, of Loire wines – a popular choice for writers but not sommeliers.

Lea & Sandeman and Yapp Bros were mentioned seven times. Other retailers which featured often were Roberson, Slurp, Vine Trail, Waitrose and Tesco, with six mentions each, and Sainsbury’s and Goedhuis with five apiece. The grand old St James’s Street rivals Berry Bros and Justerini & Brooks scored a non-inflammatory four each. Of the many new online operations, Wine Direct, From Vineyards Direct and Swig all featured, but it would seem that Slurp has been most successful at courting the wine writers.

The sommeliers, not surprisingly, tended to cite merchants who supply the restaurant business, so I was particularly impressed that Hamish Anderson of Tate restaurants chose the overperforming basic 2010 Trimbach Riesling from Majestic (a steal at £10.99) and Gérard Basset, current holder of the Best Sommelier in the World title, proposed the hearty £13.99 La Bastide Blanche Bandol from Waitrose.

Beaujolais is finding favour with opinion formers. Included in the range were no fewer than three Beaujolais, three Crus Beaujolais and four wines made nearby in its image from the same grape, Gamay. Jamie Goode’s pick, from M&S, is the £4.79 Vin de Pays d’Ardèche from the co-op there, while Steven Spurrier’s Madargues, £7.95 from The Wine Society, is made by the St-Verny co-op and is a Côtes d’Auvergne, promoted to full-blown appellation status two years ago. A third Gamay, domaine bottled Vielles Vignes 2011 by Robert Sérol in the Côte Roannaise appellation, sold by The Wine Society at £7.95, was chosen by two wine writers quite independently: scourge of wine scams Jim Budd and Master of Wine Rosemary George. Meanwhile, at the top end, sommelier Maxime Bichon of Terroir and Brawn wine bar-restaurants loyally chose a £20 Ardèche 2010 Gamay from Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet imported by her employers Les Caves de Pyrène. (Jamie Goode chose a red St-Joseph from the same producer.)

As I reported three weeks ago, Bordeaux is out. Just one red Bordeaux was among the wines selected by the writers, and three were chosen by the sommeliers. However, I was surprised by how relatively few red burgundies featured. Anthony Rose chose a great-value Bourgogne Rouge 2010 from Nicolas Rossignol, currently sold by Lea & Sandeman for 5p less than our £15 limit. Tom Harrow chose a Gevrey-Chambertin 2008 from a new Dutch-Australian winemaker Mark Haisma which Vinoteca is selling for £32.50. Both of these are delicious and had me salivating for more – but burgundy is notoriously capricious.

Rhône, meanwhile, is definitively in. No fewer than seven southern Rhône wines featured in the wine writers’ under £15 choices and there were five northern Rhones and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape in their 17 £15+ red wine selections. Of the 18 reds chosen by the sommeliers, six were from the Rhône with St-Joseph, Syrah at its most accessible, the favourite appellation. It’s always fun to see what specialists recommend, so I approached the choices of Rhône author John Livingstone-Learmonth with particular interest. His red Côtes de Ventoux, Sélection La Jeannette 2010 from the Gonnets of Châteauneuf’s Font Michelle, £7.43 from Tanners, was one of the most artisanal and expressive wines under £8. And Bernard Gripa’s white Les Figuiers St-Péray, £19.96 from Vine Trail, has long been a favourite of mine. The vintage in question, 2010, is exceptionally good in the Rhône.

Roussillon whites triumph. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of Languedoc-Roussillon reds in the under £8 selection, given how many of them are available and at keen prices. Rather more surprising were the four white wines from the Roussillon and, in particular, my old favourite Le Soula Blanc, whose current 2008 vintage was the choice of no fewer than three top sommeliers: Isa Bal of The Fat Duck, Emily O’Hare of The River Cafe and Xavier Rousset of Texture and 28-50.

Jura and Savoie are on the up. Five years ago I suspect most British wine writers went from one year to the next without tasting anything from these two small regions, but there were six representatives in this year’s selection. The only problem was that the organisers could not always find the precise vintage chosen – an important disadvantage of the whole exercise.

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