Where were the beans used to make your coffee grown? And how about the leaves in your tea? Or the hops in your beer? Or the grapes in your wine? If you drink these beverages and can confidently answer all four questions, congratulations. You’re a singularly well-informed exception to the rule.
For most readers of this column, only one of these answers matters. Wine, we all think, is and has always been, intimately associated with its origin. Except, of course, that it hasn’t – at least not with any precision. When England owned Aquitaine and imported 11,000 tons of the 1308 vintage wine from Libourne, no one paid much attention to the location of the vineyards. What mattered was where the wine was purchased. If it was bought in Bordeaux, it was sold as Bordeaux, and much the same applied in Burgundy for centuries after that. Merchants selling casks of wine at the market in Volnay didn’t bother telling their customers that some of the contents began life as grapes grown in Monthélie or St Aubin. Volnay was the brand, just as Bosch is the reassuringly German brand whose name appears on electrical equipment produced in Mexico or Romania and some 47 other countries.
The parallel is clear. With strong brands – Liptons tea, Illy coffee or a Bosch dishwasher – origin is secondary to expectations of style and quality. And, though many wine purists would prefer to think otherwise, the same can be true of wine. Last night, my partner and I enjoyed a juicily simple, inexpensive bottle of la Vieille Ferme 2015 I had bought from a local supermarket at the weekend. Made by the Perrin family, who also own Château Beaucastel, one of the best estates in Châteauneuf du Pape, it had the appealing red fruit flavours I associate with the southern Rhône and the grape varieties grown there.
According to the lavieilleferme website, the wine was, indeed, made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, but also Carignan which is more usually found in Languedoc Roussillon than in Côtes du Rhône. So, one might reasonably surmise that it was from the Pays d’Oc, and perhaps it was, but I have no way of knowing because the label merely described it as a ‘Product of France’.
As a wine lover and professional, I was certainly curious to know where the wine came from, but not knowing did not reduce my enjoyment of it by one iota. Instead, it actually increased my respect for the way the Perrins had taken advantage of the latitude allowed them by the Vin de France designation to produce large, consistent quantities of the kind of wine France does so well. The French wine industry needs more wines like these.