Friday, 21 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Final Wine: New Zealand vs France


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 its complex flavours are so overwhelming and powerful that at times you just 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 this bandwagon too. 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.

They’ve ploughed their own furrow throughout this Rugby World Cup, the French. Coach Marc Lievremont has baffled everybody with his team selections then the same teams have baffled their fans with their performances – falling short against the All-blacks – who they meet again in the final – scraping through after losing against Tonga, then disposing of England with alacrity before a dismal display against brave Wales saw France saved by Wales’ poor goal kicking. Not to mention the referee. Oh, I did.

They plough their own furrow in the vineyards too. The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket tell the story, devoid as they are of almost any external influence in the form of foreign wine. Yes, okay, there’s the odd bottle of Rioja and Chianti – bizarrely even a Chilean Merlot. But nothing sparkling at all. No Prosecco nor Sekt. Rien. Pas une saucisse.

 A section of shelving is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette et clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne.

With good reason. Because the French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some.
You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink and they say 'no thanks' and proffer one of the usual explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics. 

Then, when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff: 

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today 

and 

Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably

or 

It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders 

accompanied by a knowing wink from your dodgy uncle.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course. Typically at around the £10-a-bottle mark 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets but if that's not possible just keep an eye on UK stores by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is.  No need to be embarrassed either. 

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else, and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager had to limit sales to five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their boots. 

What they knew was that even such huge volume, big brand, non-vintage Champagne has one unheralded quality that earns it its place in many a cellar.

It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne. Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends. 

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

New Zealand’s All Blacks have already beaten France’s Les Bleus during this Rugby World Cup and no beaten side has ever gone on to take the trophy.

New Zealand 30 France 13

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© 2011 John Alexander

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