They don’t make wines the way they used to

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Written By Clare Wadsworth

Our south-west France based writer, Clare Wadsworth, shares her thoughts on wines and winemaking.


In his poem Wine and Water, G.K. Chesterton wrote: “And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine, ‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine’.”


I called on my white wine guru, Cedric Garzuel of Plaimont this afternoon to ask how the vines are doing and what kind of a year it would be. All he wanted to talk about was the contribution Australia has made to French wines in recent years.


Over the past generation the great innovators in wine, especially white wine, have been Australians and New Zealanders, using heat and cold, oak chips and yeast. For years the French remained conservative, sticking to the classic methods of winemaking. For example, in France oaking wine was once considered taboo, whereas in Australia the strong taste was appreciated.


Then wine growers in the Languedoc and Roussillon regions realised that their soil and weather were similar to Australia’s. They, admiring the success of winemakers in the Southern Hemisphere, decided to import Australian technicians and oenologists. They also modernised their labels and marketing and raised the quality of their wines – all the while keeping their prices low.


It wasn’t until after the Prohibition era that wine in the US began to be defined by brand and variety of grape. In Australia, this means of labelling was not adopted until the 1980s. Whereas, in France it has always been the name of the region, the ‘terroir’, the village or château that one looked for and relied on when buying wine.


Years ago, French wine experts would go to Australia to offer counsel and recommendations. However, for a long time now it has been the other way around. Today, all the young oenologists studying in Bordeaux, Dijon, Toulouse, Montpellier and Rheims try to do a stint in the New World before completing their studies.


One of the significant innovations started in Australia was the use of refrigeration in the early stage of winemaking. A further advance was the use of stainless steel vats. A number of French winemakers travelled to Australia to learn about Australian methods of manufacture.


The French wine qualification Appellation d’origine controlée – AOC for short – was a factor in the success of exports of cheaper Australian wine, particularly to the UK. The marketing of French wine placed emphasis on AOC with the accompanying inference that if a wine were not AOC, it was inferior. AOC wines were, therefore, significantly more expensive in the UK than Australian wines of similar quality. This resulted in the volume of Australian wine sold in the UK around the year 2000 actually outstripping the French. It was a bit of a wake-up call to the French, who then introduced new labelling, which also stressed quality, while retaining AOC.


Ten years ago the fashion was for California and Australian-style Chardonnay – oaked and strong. That was the wine everyone, everywhere wanted to make. Nowadays, tastes seem to have changed to favour a more citrusy, acid and less alcoholic, and more thirst-quenching white wine.


Grape varieties go in and out of vogue too – in the UK pinot grigio and riesling are the trend now. In France, more than 80 per cent of wine sold is of French origin and it is the region that becomes fashionable not the grape varieties.


Screw Cap Wines

The Swiss have successfully used screw caps since the 1980s. Also, in Australia and New Zealand screw caps have overtaken cork to become the most common means of sealing bottles. As long as the cap seals the bottle there is no oxidation and the bottles are easier to open.


However, France has a centuries-old tradition of using cork; although, it must be admitted, sometimes plastic corks are used. The French tend not to accept anything but cork in the bottles they buy – although the same wines may well be exported with screw caps.


It is said that there are five reasons for drinking wine: the arrival of a friend; one’s present or future thirst; the excellence of the wine; or any other reason.