Why France’s well-travelled grapes conquered the world

Why France’s well-travelled grapes conquered the world

Whether it’s the Académie française taking its Canute-like stance against the waves of English words flowing into the French language, or chefs despairing at the prevalence of the “McDo” and the gastronomic mutant that is the French taco, there’s a widespread tendency in France to cast the French as minnows in the fight against globalisation.

The idea is that this is an essentially Anglo-American process, something which is done to, rather than by, the French, and that must be resisted at all costs. All of which is enough to raise a decidedly Gallic shrug among winemakers everywhere else in the world. When it comes to the modern history of wine, the French are very much the imperialists.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the grape varieties that have become a kind of stylistic shorthand for most modern wine drinkers. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz (aka syrah), malbec, pinot noir … whether they’re planted in Argentina, Chile, Australia, California or South Africa, almost all the biggest-selling, most respected varieties are French in origin.

There’s a rather delicious irony here that might help explain the inability of some French vignerons to see their wine culture as the coloniser: with the exception of Alsace, French growers never used to bother putting grape varieties on their labels. The region – the terroir – was the star. Giving top billing to the variety was an American idea, perfected in California, Australia and then the rest of the so-called new world, as it emerged to challenge European wine from the 1970s onwards.

That it was almost always French varieties that the Californians et al were using was a reflection of the reverence they felt for French wine: just as for generations of British chefs fine dining was synonymous with French cuisine, so, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a wine producer, only the French model would do.

Increasingly, however, there’s a feeling among new world producers that many of their growing regions are actually better suited to varieties from parts of the world – specifically southern Europe – with which they share a broadly similar climate and topographical conditions. This, combined with a general sense that contemporary Italian, Spanish or Portuguese wines can provide a model every bit as inspiring as French wines, means we’re finally starting to get a sense of how varieties from those countries might perform overseas.

It’s still too early to say which permutations of new world region and Mediterranean variety are likely to challenge modern classics such as Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Barossa shiraz, Mendoza malbec or Napa cabernet sauvignon.

The quality of red wines made from the likes of Spain’s tempranillo, Portugal’s touriga nacional, and Italy’s sangiovese and nebbiolo, and of whites from varieties such as Italian fiano and vermentino, Atlantic Iberian albariño and Greek assyrtiko emerging from pockets of maturing vines from South Australia to California and South Africa isn’t enough to spell the end of French domination just yet. Although the presence of some lovely albariño in the Languedoc does show that the varietal traffic is certainly no longer one way.

Six European grapes that have travelled well

Bosman Nero
Wellington, South Africa 2019 (£10,sainsburys.co.uk)
South Africa’s first ever commercially available version of the Sicilian red grape variety nero d’avola and it’s a very good one: resisting the temptation to go for big fruit and power, it retains a distinctly Italianate, deliciously tangy red-plum drinkability.

Coriole Sangiovese
McLaren Vale, Australia 2019 (£15.99, waitrose.com)
The Tuscan red grape sangiovese was long thought to be a poor traveller. But Australian growers such as Coriole are increasingly proving otherwise, with stylish reds such as this, which is filled with the variety’s trademark cherry, tobacco leaf and oregano.

Bodega Bouza Albariño
Montevideo, Uruguay 2020 (£22.95, jeroboams.co.uk)
Uruguay’s Atlantic breeze-cooled vineyards have much in common with those on the other side of the ocean in Spain’s Galicia, and Bouza’s superbly fragrant mix of white peach, apple, blossom and citrussy cut and thrust is one of many promising versions of the example from the South American country.

Giornata Fiano
Paso Robles, California, USA 2019 (from £20, northandsouthwines.co.uk; iconicwines.co.uk; kwoff.co.uk)
With its ripple of fresh acidity, notes of fennel and a luminous vibrancy undercutting a mouthfillingly juicy peachiness, this is one of a handful of impressive Californian versions of a southern Italian variety that is also increasingly popular (and successful) in Australia.

Hans Herzog Secret of Marlborough Montepulciano
Marlborough, New Zealand 2016 (from £37.95, nywines.co.uk; caviste.co.uk)
There isn’t an awful lot of montepulciano outside its home in Abruzzo in central Italy, but this Marlborough rarity suggests it could be one to plant and watch in the future: serious, savoury but with a sweet-sour contrast of blackberry and cherry fruit, and great texture and length.

Running With Bulls Tempranillo
Barossa Valley, Australia 2019 (£9, coop.co.uk)
Tempranillo, the grape variety behind many of Spain’s top red wines in Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro, is perfectly suited to warmer parts of South Australia, and here makes for a typically rich and fulsome Aussie red with a whack of pleasingly ripe blackberry fruit.