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It pays to change

ON August 1, Europe will change the way its wine is labelled.

ON August 1, Europe will change the way its wine is labelled. In France, for example, vin de pays will cease to exist.

It will become wine of “protected geographical indication”, which is magnificently clumsy Euro-speak for “wine which really is what it says on the label”. So the next vintage of my wine of the week, La Différence Carignan, will no longer be sold as “Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes”, but as “Pays des Côtes Catalanes” – in big letters – with “Indication Géographique Protegée” in much smaller wording underneath.

london wine fair 2009

This may sound horribly complicated, but it will put former vin de pays on a level footing with aristocratic “appellation contrôlée” wines such as Bordeaux, Chablis and Sancerre, which are already made under the same rules, designed to protect the integrity of local produce.

I suspect that most consumers won’t notice much difference. Few of us stare at the small print. Brand names won’t change and a clear indication of a grape variety – the appeal of most vin de pays – will still dominate the label. Far more important, the quality of wines in this category, which account for most of the southern French wines on the supermarket shelves (as well as a few from farther north), is getting better, almost with each new vintage.

Wines that are blended from different regions will be sold as “Wine of France” (thank goodness something’s simple!) Their producers will be free to show grape varieties and vintage dates on the label – unlike the “Vin de Table” that they will largely replace. This should enable them to compete more effectively with the big-brand wines from Australia, South Africa and the Americas.

Last week, I reported on the white and pink wines that were chosen by an expert panel as this year’s Top 100 vins de pays from more than 1,200 bottles submitted by growers, and revealed at last month’s London Wine Fair. This week, it’s the reds’ turn.

The whites impressed me, but the reds, generally speaking, are even more exiting. The 20 or so friends who helped me taste more than 50 of them (wine tasting is much more fun with a bit of company) agreed that standards are high and that while the ranks of Merlots and Cabernets are good, the Syrahs are better and wines made from longer-established southern French varieties such as Grenache and Carignan are better still and, like my wine of the week, offer great value for money. One of my favourite Syrahs (Shiraz if you prefer), Gabriel Meffre’s La Chasse du Pape Shiraz, 2008, packed with plummy, chewy, sappy black fruit, is just £5.49 (at Waitrose).

Few vins de pays are expensive. I loved one of them – Mont Tauch’s Single Vineyard Grenache 2007, Vin de Pays la Vallée de Paridis. It has a great depth of smoky black fruit. But it is not that much better than Mont Tauch’s genuinely exceptional “L’Exception”, which Majestic lists at £10.99. And you’ll need to pay £24.99 for your touch of paradise. Still, even that is a mere nothing compared with the price of some wines I tasted last week in Spain – but that’s another story (coming soon).

It was nice too to see some unusual wines among the mix, including a couple made from a grape called Marselan – one of the few commercially successful crossings of recent years. Its parents are Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. It was first authorised for vin de pays in 1990 and seems to be enjoying life in France’s Mediterranean vineyards.

And just to provide a bit of relief from the deep colours and powerful tannins of so much red wine at one sitting, we tried the handful of sweet white wines that had found their way into the Top 100 and were entranced by them – although we were frustrated to discover that most of them, including the trophy winner for best sweet wine of the show, have yet to find a UK importer. It’s so hard to muscle on to some of those shelves!

That said, one of the nice things about the 100 top vins de pays is to see really good wines coming from right across the range of producers from small family-run estates to huge co-operatives and large internal brands. Some smaller growers whinge about “industrial wine” and imply that only their hand-crafted product is worth bothering with. Co-ops such as Mont Tauch are proof that such a claim is hogwash. In fact, the co-operative cellars of southern France picked up a raft of trophies, including best white wine in show, top Sauvignon Blanc and best rosé.

It’s not only the new law that is helping to establish an egalitarian approach to wine production, but the competition has never been hotter.

:: Wine of the week

La Différence Carignan 2008, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes, Asda, Co-op, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, £5.99

Deep, purply red with a generous smell and mouth-filling taste of ripe damsons and black cherries. Chunky and satisfying. Superb value. Try it with grilled lamb.

Brand names won't change and a clear indication of a grape variety – the appeal of most vin de pays – will still dominate the label

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