A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
I wonder whether curious wine lovers realise how lucky they are if they live outside the world’s three major wine-producing countries, France, Italy and Spain.
Here in London, and in major cities in the US, northern Europe, Asia, even South America and definitely in Australia, we can choose from a dizzying array of wines from different countries and regions.
In France, Italy and Spain it may be delightfully easy to order wine direct from the nation’s wineries, at admittedly much lower prices than we have to pay in export markets, but the choice is pretty much limited to local producers. Benefiting from the miraculously expanded range of wines available today is difficult. The most serious wine shops in Spain and enoteche in Italy’s larger cities may have a limited selection of Europe’s most famous wines (especially champagne) but forget trying to keep up with the staggering winegrowing progress in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Chile and the US.
A typical French town may have a dusty caviste, as wine retailers are known in France, and a supermarket with no shortage of bottles from the country’s biggest producers. Apart from the supermarkets’ supply chains, however, there is no national distribution system even for French wine. Just a hugely fragmented network of small-scale wholesalers with their own limited portfolios and territories.
But a handful of individuals are trying to offer something different, not least to cater to the dramatically expanded tastes and knowledge, inter alia, of the quite substantial band of young wine professionals who, post-Brexit and COVID-19, have returned to their European homeland from working in British restaurants and wine merchants.
Gaëtan Turner was raised in Melbourne by a mother from a Loire farming family and an Australian father. They met as missionaries in Papua New Guinea and Gaëtan, a cheerful 46-year-old, told me when we met in Paris recently that he considers he too is doing missionary work: trying to sell New World wines to the French.
Although he would visit his French grandparents regularly, he didn’t move to France until 1999, to be with his now wife, also from the Loire, after having interned at Moët & Chandon’s Australian outpost. The following year he worked as a translator at a wine fair in Angers. Wandering round Paris he spied a bottle of Penfolds in a caviste’s window and got himself a job working for the company importing these famous Australian wines. It was eventually merged with one supplying pubs so he unexpectedly found himself selling pork scratchings.
At this stage he thought it might be a good idea to get some formal wine-business training and enrolled at the wine school of Suze-la-Rousse in the Rhône Valley. On his return he suggested to his employers that it would be wise to diversify a little. ‘In 2000 selling just Australian wine was risky’, he explained. He ended up selling LVMH’s non-French wines – the likes of Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle and Terrazas de los Andes from New Zealand, Western Australia and Argentina respectively – for a company called Desert Rose. I queried the name. ‘It’s really difficult to grow roses in desert, just like selling Australian wine in France’, was the wry explanation.
By 2006 Desert Rose had finally, fatally shrivelled and Turner set up his own company, South World Wines. He was helped by Paris-based wine writer David Cobbold, who introduced him to the likes of Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa and Jose Miguel Viu Bottini of Viu Manent in Chile. (He had previously been schooled by chef Alain Ducasse’s wine man Gérard Margeon, who, for example, chided him: ‘don’t ever take a buyer the same vintage of a wine!’)
Turner’s most impressive achievement is to have survived commercially. Soif d’Ailleurs, a wine shop in Paris’s Marais district that I was once very impressed by for the breadth of its international selection, has since closed. Vins du Monde, a Nantes-based importer of foreign wines into France, has changed hands and direction. Lavinia, the ambitious Spanish-owned group of extensive modern stores selling the wines of the world has closed its glamorous premises at the Madeleine in Paris and replaced it with a smaller space, as well as closing its branch in Barcelona (although it still has two in Madrid and one in Geneva).
Turner is undaunted and currently offers 300 wines from 50 wineries in 12 countries, including Hungary, Austria and Germany, but also 18 of the top Australian producers. ‘Today I’m really proud because I think my selection of wines from Australia is better than ever.’ But his big challenge is convincing his French customers, however impressed they may be by the wines, to accept the screwcaps so beloved by his Australian suppliers. Despite blind tastings to demonstrate screwcaps’ beneficial effect on freshness and ageability, Turner still finds some clients refusing allocations of sought-after wines such as Henschke’s simply because they are screwcapped. ‘Oh well, some people will just miss out on a great wine’, he says, admitting ‘screwcaps have been a bigger challenge than non-French wine.’
But things are going in the right direction. ‘South World Wines is a small company but it’s growing, largely thanks to sommeliers coming back from overseas. They’ve been in Melbourne, New York and London where they’ve had exposure to non-French wines.’ Chapoutier of the Rhône and Australia send three especially promising French sommeliers to Australia each year and the Master of Port initiative provides somms with trips to Portugal’s Douro Valley, for example.
Another factor in opening up French eyes and palates to wines from beyond l’hexagone has been the popularity of courses run by the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which certainly doesn’t limit itself to French wines. In the last academic year over 11,000 people sat for a WSET qualification in France, double the figure for the previous year.
‘The WSET courses have been great at opening up French tunnel vision’, enthuses Turner. ‘The interest is there but there is a lot of ignorance, even among cavistes and somms. France has some fantastic tasters but when you present them with a Barossa Shiraz or a South African Pinotage, the flavours are very different from what their palates are used to. Good tasters will see past the power though.’ Like his suppliers, however, Turner is changing his focus from fruit bombs to subtler wines. ‘In the past I liked wines that had more maquillage [make-up] than the ones I like now.’
His big eye-opener recently was a trip to Chile courtesy of the export organisation ProChile. Chile is doing so well at the moment filling the giant gap in the Chinese wine market left by the Australian wine that is now effectively barred by China’s punitive tariffs that it’s a miracle ProChile were prepared to prioritise Turner over yet another Chinese importer, but Turner was so impressed that he will presumably return the favour.
‘The trip was one of my real turning points. It was amazing to see vineyards that have never had pesticides – they were so dynamic and alive. No machines have worked them.’ Turner has come back from his trip fired up about a wine made from ancient País vines in Itata in southern Chile and a wine somehow coaxed from granite 2,100 m (6,900 ft) up in the Andes. ‘In the next 15 to 20 years I have to run my business and work out how I can really show these wineries and regions who work with their gut to the French. I’ve got to show stuff that has a real story to tell.’
He was still excited about having that morning shown a Greywacke Chardonnay 2018 from New Zealand to a sommelier who has 100 burgundies on his wine list. ‘It’s so interesting to create a real moment for a somm to discover something’, he said. His clients are wide-ranging and include top chef Guy Savoy, the Mandarin Oriental, the hipster wine bar Frenchie and the particularly open-minded Antic Wine in Lyons.
For our meeting he suggested a wine shop-cum-wine bar near the Eiffel Tower cleverly called Vino Sapiens and not limited, needless to say, to French wine. As we talked in mid afternoon the next table was occupied by three young Asian tasters working their way through the wines by the glass. WSET students perhaps?
Our man in Burgundy, Matthew Hayes of Albion Vins Fins, has been trying to sell top-quality Italian wines from his base in Dijon since 2011 and reports, ‘in a word, it’s hard work. I am certain an importer has much more fun in London. He’s a brave lad, that Gaëtan.’
Some wines I’d like French wine lovers to try
From many possibilities … a white and then a red that might confound prejudices, from each of the countries below.
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2018 Macedon Ranges 13.3%
£38 Terra Wines
Henschke, Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2017 Eden Valley 14.5%
£144 RRP to be released 4 May
Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2019 Kumeu 14%
£41.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants, £43 Noble Green, £44.95 Vinified Wine
Kusuda Pinot Noir 2018 Martinborough 13%
Rall White 2020 Coastal Region 13%
£26.08 Lay & Wheeler, £29.99 Handford Wines, £154.07 per case of 6 Justerini & Brooks
Kershaw, Clonal Selection Syrah 2018 Elgin 13.5%
£34.99 to £39.95 (2017) various independent retailers
Kutch, Trout Gulch Chardonnay 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains 13%
£60 Fortnum & Mason
Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Oakville, Napa Valley 14.5%
£185 Hard to Find Wines, £188 Hedonism
Tasting notes on Purple Pages. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.