Friday, 23 September 2011

Rugby World Cup Wine: France vs New Zealand

They don’t have much truck with outsiders, the French. Their Rugby World Cup squad of 31 players includes only two men born outside France.

The wine shelves of my ‘local’ (I holiday nearby at least once a year) French supermarket tell a similar story.

Among reds some 60% of shelf space is given over to Bordeaux – half of which is simple Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior. 

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window, and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels – the store's chosen winemakers – rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle. 

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Wines are arranged by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne. 

Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire, including a couple of stray rosés, dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

But what's this, in the corner over there, a narrow shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there are a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot.

That’s the French for you. Their wine is their own – exciting (like Bordeaux) and frustrating (like Burgundy) by turns, but at its best, capable of being the very, very best. In the world.

And so is their rugby – exciting (like their two World Cup finals knockout victories over New Zealand) and frustrating (like their 22-21 loss to former Six Nations makeweights Italy) by turns, but at its best, capable of being the very, very best. In the world.

Something similar can be said of New Zealand. But unlike the French you’ll be saying, their wine is not really their own – like the rugby team it’s built on foreign imports. Take a look.

So I did. One born in Australia, two in Samoa. The rest of the RWC 2011 team New Zealanders born and bred.

And that’s the story of the wine too.

Winemaking grapes may seem ‘foreign’ to New Zealand, like Rainbow Trout, Pacific islanders and losing at the national sport, but wine has been made in New Zealand since 1836 and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first hit the headlines in 1977 – ten years before the All-Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a trophy that has since inexplicably eluded them.

Yet, as with rugby, New Zealand has taken something from the Old World and somehow made it better in every way.  Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is unarguably a modern classic – a brilliant evolution, revolution, of an Old World variety. Like New Zealand rugby it’s sharp and clean and consistent and so overwhelming and powerful that at times you don’t know what’s hit you.

Time was we couldn't get enough of the stuff, but as with so much in life, familiarity breeds contempt. Not another NZSB. Not another haka. Not another brilliant outside half. Nicky Allen, Grant Fox, Dan Carter. Enough already.

Maybe we’ve had too much of a good thing. A few years back UK supermarkets would carry a single entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Then there were two. We learned to look out for the Marlborough variety, and we usually found the original pioneer, Montana. Now we see three or four, not just labelled Marlborough but also Wairau Valley.  

There have been a couple of sniffy articles in the press. Even Cloudy Bay has not been immune. Soon the fashionistas will jump on the bandwagon. The snobs that ganged up to form the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club will be circling round New Zealand's finest export – Dame Kiri Te Kenawa and Hayley Westernra not withstanding – with the same opportunistic glint in their eyes, looking for the chance to sneer, to be seen to be the champion of the next big thing.

My advice is to have nothing to do with it. Oz Clarke, whose palate is the envy of many a Master of Wine, has suggested New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the best in the world. It probably is. Even everyday easy drinking examples can open up with fragrant herbaceous scents, offer weight on the palate and be fruit packed with zingy and zesty lemons and limes. As you climb the premium ladder the flavours intensify with fresh green capsicums, elderflowers, rich gooseberries, guava, mango, and ripe, heady and pungent asparagus. It is delicious stuff.

New Zealand took something subtle and tricky and unpredictable and made it powerful and distinctive and unbeatable.

Now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the grape or the sport.

New Zealand to win by ten points

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© 2011 John Alexander