A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine. That saying is attributed to everyone, from French chemist Louis Pasteur to gastronome Brillat-Savarin to Californian winemaker Robert Mondavi.

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When I’m staying with friends outside Goulburn the conversation focuses on sheep. While in Umbria, it’s olive oil. Here in Southwest France, it tends to be wine.

I once sat between two grand Bordeaux wine producers, who ignored me completely as they discussed their vintages. I could have been invisible. Then one asked: “Do you have any vines?” I was about to say no, humbly, when I thought of my paltry 3.64 hectares; best for making vinegar. I casually said yes. “Where?” “Outside Condom.” And I became invisible again!

But, at these dinners, one does pick up the most fascinating tit-bits of information! Did you know that vines may not be irrigated in France after August 15 as it is felt this may increase the crop and reduce the quality of the grapes? And that almost all French wines are blended?

Have you observed that roses are still often planted at the end of every row of vines? Originally that was because the rose would catch any disease before the vines, which could be treated quickly. Also, the roses were often different colours so that the illiterate workers could be told to go to the third yellow rose on the right or the fourth pink on the left.

Fashions in wine consumption have frequently been dictated by wine guides or wine writers. The once invincible wine critic Robert Parker’s wine guide has now been somewhat discredited. The great guides are now considered to be Hachette Wine Guide and also Bettane & Desseauve.

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Recently, British wine critic Jancis Robinson went to a tasting of 83 new-wave Australian wines and published a list of the 25 she liked best. No one I know has even heard of, let alone tasted, more than four of them! But wine critics don’t know everything. Some 35 years ago English wine personality Gerald Asher said: “I made a mental note to watch which bottle became empty soonest, sometimes a more telling evaluation system than any other.”

The other great influencer of wine consumption, is medals earned in competition. The most important and highly respected competition in France is the annual Concours Général Agricole in Paris, which is funded and organised by the Ministries of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Rural Affairs. The Concours is co-owned by the Centre Nationale d’Expositions; Paris’ national exhibition centre, where it is hosted.

More than 15,000 wine samples are submitted by about 4,000 of France’s winemakers. These are examined and rated by almost 3,000 experts, usually divided into juries of five from different regions, which makes it one of the largest tasting panels of any wine competition in the world. They award more than 3,500 medals.

Here in the Gers, a local jury in Eauze will taste all the Gascon wines put forward before they are allowed to compete and this process will eliminate about half of those put forward. About 10 per cent of these local wines that do reach Paris will win gold or silver medals, and those medals help tremendously, especially as far as supermarket sales are concerned.

In France, a major influence on wine buying is the classic French bottle shapes, each rooted in its own region. Winemakers like to change the shape of the bottle to appear original. However, what gains they make in originality they sometimes lose in recognition. As a consumer, one is never quite sure whether a case holds six bottles or 12.

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Long before Apple paid such attention to packaging, the winemakers of France created beautiful and often collectible cases for transporting their goods. Those original wooden cases are more valued now and often broken up and sanded down into bread or cheese boards. Interestingly, the cardboard cartons still tend to be a simple off-white here, whereas in the New World they are often bright, eye-catching colours.

From wine critics, to guides, to medals, bottle shapes and packaging – all these things have been used to advantage winemakers in the competition for devotees. Today, wine marketers are developing new techniques.

Have you noticed the glamorous jet set image for Provencal rosés in recent years, cultivated by very impressive marketing strategies? The new bottles and labels and the very pale colour project the whole dazzling lifestyle of the Cote d’Azur. The colour scale is described as gooseberry, peach, grapefruit, cantaloupe, mango and mandarin.

As the 19th-century American poet, Richard Henry Stoddard wrote,

Day and night my thoughts incline

To the blandishments of wine,

Jars were made to drain, I think;

Wine, I know, was made to drink.