Who says the French don't fight back? For the last few years, much of the French wine industry has been mired in crisis, with thousands of small vintners pushed to the edge of bankruptcy by declining sales at home and increasingly robust competition abroad. The emergence of popular New World brands, such as Australia's phenomenally successful Yellow Tail, has particularly unnerved the French and prompted sober reflection. Hoping to recover some of the lost ground, several French companies are now rolling out new wines meant to appeal to budget-conscious foreign consumers. "We have to simplify our product and reject an arrogant approach that was perhaps natural to us," Pascal Renaudat, the president of the company behind Chamarré, one of the new wines, told the Guardian earlier this year.
So, how well do these wines woo international palates? For one thing, most of them break with French custom and highlight the grape variety—rather than the place of origin—on the front label. While some French wines (notably Alsatian wines and most vins de pays, or country wines) have long been identified by grape, the French have typically preferred to emphasize geography, reflecting their belief that winemaking is chiefly about location, location, location—and that wines are, foremost, an expression of the soils and microclimates that nurtured them. But this approach, which works fine with high-end wines, has become an albatross at the discount level. Casual wine drinkers don't go looking for $8 St. Vérans; most have no idea what a St. Véran is. (It is a chardonnay from France's Mâcon region.) Rather, they scan the aisles for $8 chardonnays, which is why it is useful to have the word chardonnay splashed across the front of the bottle.
And since the goal here is to compete with Yellow Tail, many of the new wines strive to match its buoyant, inviting look. The showiest of the newcomers is a wine called Emilio, put out by a Bordeaux cooperative in partnership with a U.S. importer; the label features bright yellow lettering against a flaming red backdrop, with speckles of pink, purple, blue, green, and orange. The Petit Bistro wines, which debuted this summer and are produced by Labouré-Roi, a Burgundy negociant, bear the most attractive and cannily designed label—a Van Gogh-esque rendering of a bistro with sidewalk seating, set under a moonlit, star-filled sky.
However, the appealing imagery is quickly forgotten when you flip the bottle and read the uproariously cheesy copy found there. This from the back of the Petit Bistro 2005 syrah:
"What does a woman want?", the young man mused to no one in particular. "A glass of Syrah?" earnestly responded his dining companion—the girl of his dreams—feasting her eyes dreamily on the menu at the Petit Bistro, "along with lamb chops and polenta—or perhaps the pasta prepared with a hearty tomato sauce?" Gazing into one another's eyes, they savored the thrilling possibilities of a deep violet wine with a rich, seductive aroma, layered with opulent flavors of ripe blackberry and cherry.
Is the goal here to get us to toss back the wine or toss up our food?
Whatever the intent, this treacle is actually quite revealing. Polenta and pasta are not bistro dishes—they are trattoria fare. The attempt to play up the syrah's compatibility with Italian food suggests another French strategy: a subtle effort to play down the Gallic origins of these wines. Le Freak, one of the new launches, has a name that's more evocative of the disco era than of France. (Click Wine Group, the firm that imports Le Freak into the United States, had said self-deprecatingly that the "funny and irreverent name also demonstrates that the French don't always take their fine wines too seriously.") Not only that: The front label follows the Australian example and uses "Shiraz" instead of "Syrah." From a marketing standpoint, soft-pedaling the French connection probably makes sense: Politically and culturally, France is not very popular at the moment, and French wines, save for the finest examples, have become a particularly tough sell.
Not every company is running away from its Frenchness; Jean-Claude Mas, an entrepreneurial wine baron in the Languedoc region, has chosen to confront anti-French sentiment directly and humorously by naming his new line Arrogant Frog. And Gallic condescension hasn't entirely disappeared. Emilio is smugly billed as a merlot "tailored to please the American palate."
I have no idea what "the American palate" is. I am, however, reasonably familiar with my own palate, and it found the new wines disappointing. I figured they would show a lot of clumsy oak, and many of them did; what came as a surprise was the number of underfruited wines. I expected these New World wannabes to be crammed with lush fruit, but most were lean and limp. Of the 15 wines I tasted, not everything was a bust; the two Arrogant Frog wines, and two of the Chamarrés, were pleasant. The three Petit Bistro wines I tried were emphatically not. At a time when Spain, Italy, and other countries are flooding the market with inexpensive, enjoyable wines, the newcomers are going to have to do better than this. Ultimately, the shrewdest strategy is to put good wine in the bottle.
Arrogant Frog Ribet Red 2004 (cabernet sauvignon, merlot blend), $8.99
Black currant, tobacco, and toasty aromas fill the glass. Pleasantly sweet in the mouth—could use a bit more fruit to stand up to the tannins, but the underfruiting problem is far less acute in this wine than in some of the other reds I tasted.
Arrogant Frog Ribet White 2005 (chardonnay, viognier blend), $8.99
A heady nose of lemons, peaches, and flowers, along with some chalk. Ripe, zesty fruit on the palate, with a nice note of pineapple on the finish. Simple, enjoyable wine.
Emilio Merlot 2005, $9.99
A promisingly dark color and a funky, interesting nose, with a whiff of charcuterie, red currants, spicy oak, and a slight medicinal note. Soft red fruit that gets buried under a wall of tannins as it makes its way across the tongue. An unfortunate clash of Muzak and heavy metal.
Chamarré 2003 Bordeaux, $ 11.99
A Bordeaux blend (cabernet sauvignon and merlot, along with some cabernet franc and petit verdot). Deceptively wan color—the wine actually has some heft and depth to it. Vanilla-inflected black fruit, along with a peppery note. Another tannin juggernaut across the palate, but the fruit at least manages to keep its feet.
Chamarré Cabernet Sauvignon-Grenache 2004, $9.99
A high-toned cherry perfume on the nose (the grenache talking), along with some pepper and toasty oak. Full-bodied wine with sweet black fruit and a hint of licorice. A little too much structure, not quite enough fruit, but an interesting, satisfying blend.
Le Freak Shiraz Viognier 2003, $14
A decent bouquet of tart blackberries and white flowers (courtesy the viognier, presumably). A chewy, dense texture to the wine, but there is a washed-out quality to the fruit. It's a northern Rhone tradition to cut syrah with a bit of white wine; in this case, it seems only to have cut the heart out of the syrah.