We've all been sadly cooped up at home for a long time with little opportunity to attend wine tastings. Virtual events have at least allowed us to communicate with fellow wine professionals - a welcome and vital link to keep us all in the loop. However, there's nothing quite like a live event and Business France has been on the case more than once! Following a successful sparkling wine tasting earlier this year, the 22nd June was the date for a tasting of rosé and organic wines in a new venue, the leafy Barbican Conservatory terrace.
The weather outside was warmish, cloudy and slightly muggy, while the well-lit, pleasantly cool terrace, overlooking the not-quite-back-to-work London metropolis, played host to around 150 wines from 24 producers spanning the length and breadth of La Belle France.
Despite travel restrictions, the prolongation of social distancing and other limitations not lifted the previous day on 21st June, there was a clear spirit of bonhomie … and I haven't even mentioned the B word! French wine producers understand how important the UK market is and were determined to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones with the eager British trade. Unfortunately, despite looking forward to being here in person, producers were unable to attend. Nevertheless, Business France still managed to organise a successful event that represented much of the beauty of French wine.
This tasting focused on two categories that have been assuming ever greater importance in the wine trade. Rosé wines were once seen here as sweet, fruity and very little else. In recent years, spurred on by the success of dry Provence expressions and the explosion of love 'em or loathe 'em celebrity brands, the category has gained traction and premiumised its image to a certain extent.
There's still plenty of work to be done to convince UK consumers that good rosés don't just come in a ubiquitous shade of pale pink and that there are many flavour profiles to discover. Yet there's no harm in celebrating the fact that exports of Provence rosés to the UK increased by 51% from 2019 to 2020, according to the CIVP (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Provence). This makes the UK the second largest export market globally for Provençal rosés in terms of volume.
The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) recently reported that sales of rosés had the biggest percentage increase among wines (22% compared to the previous year), but still lag behind whites and reds in volume terms. Miles Beale, WSTA Chief Executive, said: "Rosé has been on the up in recent years but was given an extra boost in 2020 during the lockdowns and the warm weather. Interestingly the rosé trend continued during the winter months."
Similarly, Joe Turner, category manager for wine at Co-op, saw lockdown impacting on supermarket sales with customers prepared to drink their favourite wine styles at home. "The sun was shining for the early part of lockdown. So, we saw sales of rosé wine consistently increase by at least 47 per cent each week and was the best-selling of the whole Co-op French wine offering during that period." He also reports sales of premium rosés rising by up to 186%, showing people's willingness to spend more on a bottle for a better home-drinking experience.
Sales of organic wines are up too. Wine Intelligence reported that 43% of regular wine drinkers would be likely or very likely to purchase organic wines, with the 18-34 age group showing the highest percentage. Similarly, at least 50% of people polled listed Fairtrade, sustainably-produced, natural or environmentally-friendly wines as categories they would probably drink. Again, younger consumers and also those described as having 'a higher involvement with wine' showed greater net purchase intent for these categories.
Other reports show that spend on organic wine soared in 2019 and 2020, as UK consumers looked for more ethically produced, environmentally friendly options at a time of great concerns over climate change and health crises. Indeed, global organic wine consumption is on track to hit almost 1 billion bottles a year by 2023, more than doubling over the course of a decade (IWSR).
As reported in Harpers 2019 France Supplement, modern France is leading the way in reducing the environmental impact of viticulture. So this tasting was particularly significant now, as the world gradually re-opens post-COVID during a time of climate emergency and increasing concerns over the use of chemicals in agriculture.
Therefore, given consumers' growing interest in both rosé and organic wines, what lessons can be learnt from Business France's latest London wine tasting and what were the highlights?
Organic wines from 12 French producers and rosés from a further 12 were presented. The wine regions represented were Loire Valley, Beaujolais, Corsica, Languedoc, Roussillon, South-West, Champagne, Rhône Valley, Provence, Bordeaux and even Martinique!
The diversity of styles France produces makes the country's wine offerings among the most food-friendly, 'relevant for millennials' choices available. This was clearly evident at the Tastin' France event.
One of the undoubted highlights of the tasting was Château Henri Bonnaud from the tiny 48-hectare Palette appellation near Aix-en-Provence. The four organic 2020 wines presented were beautifully expressive with increasing levels of complexity more or less matching differences in price. Out of all of them, I felt that perhaps Château Henri Bonnaud Cuvée Terre Promise 2020 was the one to woo UK Provence rosé lovers with its classy and affordable mix of delicate red fruit, spice, mineral and floral notes plus quite a long finish. All the wines were delicious and I could certainly see these on the shelves of independent wine merchants, although the higher priced offerings would be very niche.
Domaine de la Navicelle was another impressive producer with a mix of red, white and rosé wines. Where once nobody had heard of the Tibouren grape variety, the success of Clos Cibonne has made the UK wine trade take notice. Both Cuvée Zéphir 2020 and Cuvée A Flot 2020 showcase the unique herbal and slightly savoury lift it can provide to blends. This lends Tibouren wines to so many food pairings and Cuvée Zéphir 2020, which contains Mourvèdre and Grenache too, is a fine example of a gastronomic rosé. The more delicate Cuvée A Flot 2020, based primarily on Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah with Tibouren was delightful too, the fresher grapefruit hints suiting lighter dishes.
Provence isn't just about rosés though and Navicelle Blanc 2020 is a mouth-watering, sophisticated example of a white wine made from Rolle (Vermentino) and Clairette. Vermentino is becoming more popular now in the UK. So being organic and carrying a Provençal label, this wine ticks many boxes for British consumers and is perfect for the summer weather too.
Domaine La Cadenière's range of reds, whites and rosés is hugely impressive throughout. The elegantly-shaped 'Cuvée Vallon d'Escale' bottles may be tricky to store in a wine cabinet, but are the pick of this very classy range of Provence wines.
The rosé shows more complexity and elegance than many similar styles on the market today, while the red and white would certainly add a point of difference to any wine portfolio. These could be perfect for a restaurant listing or for indie/high-end retailers.
Similarly, Château Mentone is another example of how Provence offers so much more than many people's preconceptions would suggest. The Cuvée Château White 2020 is a fresh, floral, fruity expression of Vermentino with a hint of salinity on the finish that's particularly alluring. The two Cuvée Excellence wines - red and rosé - again offer a point of difference. The red, at 15% ABV, has plenty of depth and power to cope with many strongly flavoured styles of food like venison stews. The rosé saignée, fermented and aged on lees in barrel, is also a gastronomic wine. Both would suit a specialist retailer well-placed to advise customers unfamiliar with these Provence styles.
While not organic, there's no denying the excellence of Château Saint-Maur. Three wines stood out for me - Saint M Rosé, the appropriately named L'Excellence Rosé and Saint M White. Kate Sweet comments on the enduring relevance of these wines today. "Provence wines have huge appeal for the UK consumer. Provence evokes dreams of blue seas, rugged landscapes with herb-scented garrigue, hot lazy days and delicious, leisurely meals of simple Mediterranean ingredients. Provence wines complement these dreams. Consumers are already very fond of the rosé wines, but the whites and reds are ripe for discovery too. The wines match brilliantly with Mediterranean cuisine, a style of cooking that is very healthy and popular. The rosé sector is still very strong. We see these wines as being eminently well-suited to the on-trade (particularly by the glass, e.g. Château Saint Maur's Saint M) and independent retailers. They provide a point of difference from some of the brands that are more widely distributed, while still representing fantastic quality."
Domaine des Peyre from the Rhône Valley was another standout producer from the tasting. Superb eye-catching packaging was matched by the quality of the wines themselves.
Having tried two rosés - Gala and Paparazzi, two whites - L'Apostrophe and Gusto plus one of the reds - La Gazette, these sustainably-produced wines look the part, taste delicious and should have good appeal for both independent retailers and the on-trade.
Travelling down to the south of Luberon, Château Constantin impressed with a stimulating range of wines. Cuvée C2 Rosé 2020 mixes notes of citrus, red berry, subtle tropical fruit and minerality for a very clean, moreish and distinctive style of rosé. Cuvée C2 Blanc 2020 is another characterful, organic white wine containing Vermentino. At €3-5 ex-cellar, both could potentially be quite attractive for independent retailers. For something completely different, reasonably priced and again suitable for specialist indies, the estate's single varietal red and white amphora wines deliver freshness, intensity, power and complexity. These are certainly interesting, trendy and relevant to the contemporary wine consumer.
If Quentin Tarantino made wine, then he'd probably be at Vignobles Vellas! Edgy and funky labelling adds a modern veneer to these good quality, terroir-driven Languedoc wines from mostly organic vineyards. Peter Crameri, Sales Director of UK Subsidiary, Vellas Vineyards Ltd, comments further on the growth of organic wines in the Languedoc. "Thanks to the climate and improved vineyard management, the Languedoc is an area that tends to rely less and less on artificial treatments. With today's knowledge, they are better able to master natural production of wines in the Languedoc. Many more growers are getting involved in organic conversion and some of the smaller estates are 100% organic. In 5-10 years, I think the Languedoc will be mostly organic."
Peter believes that organic food and drink production is hugely important for the UK market: "It's being talked about more and more and we're probably seeing more organic foods coming on board. I reckon that within 5 to 10 years, it will be almost abnormal to have non-organic! The expectation from consumers going forward will be that what they have in their glass or on their plate must be organic. I think we're moving towards that."
For me, the food compatibility and versatility of French rosés were two of the most evident take-home themes of the tasting. It would certainly be good to see more on-trade venues listing a wider range of rosés and pairing them with specific choices on their menus. However, this currently feels very much of a hand-sell project by knowledgeable staff. The same could also be said of independent wine merchants, especially over the summer when asked to recommend wines to go with BBQs, for example.
The Lirac rosés from Mas Isabelle, in much deeper colours than are currently fashionable here, are a case in point. Cuvée Hommage 2019, in a Rosé de Saignée style, is a good example and would make an imaginative and successful choice for grilled or BBQ foods.
Similarly and even more niche is Corsica's Domaine L'Enclos des Anges. Little known in Britain, the wines of Corsica, with grapes such as Sciacarello and Nielluccio, are for the more adventurous consumer.
Cuvée Sesto Rosé 2020 is another food-friendly, fuller-bodied and spicy rosé that most definitely isn't very pale pink! More publicity and education are needed here, I think, to make stocking these rosé styles more viable for businesses in the UK.
Back to Provence again and the two wines on show from Les Vins Margnat have strong commercial appeal. Dry, easy-drinking, fruity, fresh and very affordable, they encapsulate much of the charm of Provence rosés. Château Nestuby Cuvée Château Rosé 2020 and Cuvée Eau de Vin Rosé 2020 impressed with their smart packaging and alluringly aromatic, summery Southern French character. La Bargemone Cuvée Collection Rosé 2020 is unusual, not just for the gin bottle shape, but also for its intriguing blend of grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Counoise give floral notes with red and black berry flavours plus spice. Again, this would grace any wine list, but probably needs a hand-sell.
MasLauris L'Inopiné Rosé 2020, from the Rhône Valley, undergoes four months lees ageing, giving it extra elegance and textural complexity. This is another stylish, crisp and fuller-bodied, versatile rosé for wine listings.
Bordeaux always has much to offer UK consumers with its unique white, red and rosé expressions. Croix d'Albret Rosé 2020 from Terre de Vignerons has an attractive, light orangey pink colour and red fruit flavours. In addition to its organic credentials, it uses a carbon-neutral cork made from sugar cane and a label made from 65% recycled fibre. At under €3 ex-cellar, this is an uncomplicated, eco-friendly rosé that might suit off-trade and on-trade looking for affordable alternatives to Provence.
Ampelidae's range of contemporary, organic Loire wines have much to offer the modern consumer. I really enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc and Fié Gris. These vibrant, piercingly clean wines are very different to more opulent, fleshy southern hemisphere styles. Light, steely and packed full of flavour, they should tempt today's discerning wine drinker seeking out new options.
Wines from the south-west of France remain under the radar of many British wine drinkers. Yet the intriguing mix of international and indigenous grape varieties deserves a bigger audience on these shores, particularly as food pairings. Château Les Vignals Soif-Art Blanc 2020 is aromatic with tropical and citrus notes - I'd love to try this with goats cheese, while Domaine Gayrard Loin d'Oeil is a fuller bodied, more savoury white wine that would pair beautifully with a variety of dishes from fish to white meats.
Mas Isabelle Cuvée Blanc Roc 2019 from Lirac was another great find that's versatile with food and further demonstrates the unique diversity of French wine styles.
I liked Château Les Vignals' reds, Tradition and Symphonie. Using Gaillac grapes, Braucol and Duras, as well as more familiar varieties, these wines are distinctive with a food-friendly savoury edge that is very likeable.
Languedoc estate, Mas Lumen, presented two of the oldest wines at the tasting. Their gamey Mas Lumen 2008 oozes class, while La Sylve 2003 shows the ageing potential of this Syrah-dominant blend that would pair so well with lamb dishes.
In addition to their rosé mentioned earlier, Domaine de MasLauris L'Inopiné Rouge 2019 impressed with its fruity, slightly savoury, spicy and food-versatile character. An age-worthy wine, this is very enjoyable now, especially with game.
Corsica's Enclos des Anges Cuvée Sesto Rouge 2018, like the rosé mentioned earlier, would suit specialist retailers and restaurants willing to offer more niche and adventurous, good quality choices.
Château Nadal Hainaut Signum 2015, AOP Côtes du Roussillon and Château de La Chaize Fleurie 2019 are two other reds worthy of mention. Both deliver freshness, sophistication and charm, the former with an elegantly spicy profile, while the Beaujolais is a delightful example of the Fleurie style.
Image credit: Uchronic
Lastly, tapping into the trend for canned wines, it was good to see Uchronic showcasing some of their organic range. While the name suggests an idealised or semi-fictional view of past times, there was nothing old-fashioned or staid about these contemporary wines. The four shown at this tasting - Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Grenache - are faithful to the grape varieties and compare very favourably against other canned wines on the market today. Modern, relevant, fun and tasty. Perhaps English language labelling might help sales here though.
This article was written for Business France in July 2021