French wine and Champagne is generally more expensive in the UK compared to when purchased in France, and many smaller French producers simply do not export. It’s far more fun to combine a short holiday in France with a wine buying expedition and come back with something wonderfully different to the usual supermarket labels.
For a Champagne adventure, fly or take the Eurostar to Paris and the Champagne towns of Reims and Epernay are under two hours away by train. What could be simpler? When you visit one of the small Champagne houses in the area you will probably be personally greeted by the owners themselves, or at least one of the family, as I was when I visited one such house a few years ago. Actually, to be more precise, I was first greeted by the owners’ dog, who then padded off to find Madame and brought her out to see me.
I was there to purchase Champagne for my parents’ wedding anniversary party a few months later, and Madame could not have been more helpful in showing me around, pouring me samples of the various champagnes to try and generally making me feel very welcome to her family’s business. I learned all about the way the famous sparkling wine was produced, the varieties of grapes and how they were blended and the length of time the mix was left in the various stages to create the different wines. Madame told me that her husband was at that very moment in the vineyards, supervising cultivation of the precious vines. Her daughter was at college studying marketing and business administration so that she could help out with the business, while her son had gone to work in California, at one of the great Napa Valley wineries, to learn the trade the American way. No danger of this house dying out just yet, it seemed.
After a couple of very pleasant hours, I duly bought a mixed case of a dozen bottles of the house’s various wines, and carted them back to England to present to my parents on their anniversary. None of the bottles lasted very long, as they don’t when you’re pouring wine for around 30 people, and the conversation focused how unusual it was to have gone to France, bought wine there and shipped it back, rather than simply ordering a crate from one of the online retailers or the local supermarket.
I would thoroughly recommend a trip to France to buy wine or Champagne at source. I would suggest a trip to any of the great wine-producing regions. The big houses and caves have a slick tourist patter, but the real charm lies in seeking out the small family-owned vineyards, talking directly to the vintners and vignerons to discover a personal view of the ancient craft of wine making, and of course, trying new wines that most others will not have found.
For a small suggestion list of smaller Champagne producers check out this article by the Guardian: Champagne wine route: top 10 guide
Have you been to any small Champagne or wine houses that you would recommend?
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.