I wonder if curious wine lovers realize how lucky they are to live outside of the three major wine producing countries of the world: France, Italy and Spain. Here in London, and in major cities across the United States, Northern Europe, Asia, even South America and certainly Australia, we can choose from a dizzying array of wines from different countries and regions.
In France, Italy and Spain, it can be delightfully easy to order wine direct from the country’s wineries, admittedly at prices well below what we have to pay in export markets, but the choice is at pretty much limited to local producers. Benefiting from the miraculously expanded range of wines available today is difficult.
The most serious wine merchants in Spain and enoteche in major Italian cities may have a limited selection of Europe’s most famous wines (especially champagne), but forget about trying to keep up with the meteoric advances in viticulture in countries like Australia, New Zealand , South Africa, Argentina, Chile and the United States.
A typical French town can look dusty wine merchant, as wine merchants are called in France, and a supermarket that has no shortage of bottles from the country’s biggest producers. Outside of supermarket supply chains, there is no national distribution system even for French wine – just a highly fragmented network of small wholesalers with their own limited portfolios and territories.
But a few individuals try to offer something different, especially to cater to greatly expanded tastes and knowledge, among othersof the fairly substantial band of young wine professionals who, post-Brexit and Covid, have returned home after working in British restaurants and wine shops.
Gaëtan Turner was raised in Melbourne by a mother from a Loire farming family and an Australian father, who first met as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. When I saw him recently in Paris, Turner, a cheerful 46-year-old, told me that he, too, was doing missionary work: he was trying to sell New World wines to the French.
Although he often visited his French grandparents, he only moved to France in 1999, after completing an internship at the Australian outpost of Moët & Chandon, to be with his now wife, also from the Loire. Wandering through Paris, he saw a rare bottle of Penfolds in a wine merchants window and got a job with the company that imported those famous Australian wines.
He suggested to his employers that it would be a good idea to branch out a bit. “In 2000, selling only Australian wine was risky,” he explains. He ended up selling LVMH’s non-French wines – like Cloudy Bay, Cape Mentelle and Terrazas de los Andes from New Zealand, Western Australia and Argentina respectively – for a company called Desert Rose. I ask for the name. “It’s really difficult to grow roses in the desert, just like selling Australian wine in France”, we explain with irony.
By 2006, Desert Rose had finally shrunk and Turner started his own company, South World Wines. He was helped by Parisian wine writer David Cobbold, who introduced him to people like Peter Finlayson of Bouchard Finlayson in South Africa and Jose Miguel Viu Bottini of Viu Manent in Chile.
Turner’s most impressive achievement is surviving commercially. Soif d’Ailleurs, a wine shop in the Marais in Paris which impressed me with the extent of its international selection, has since closed its doors. Vins du Monde, Nantes importer of foreign wines in France, changes hands and management. Lavinia, the ambitious Spanish group of shops selling wines from around 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 have two in Madrid and one in Geneva).
Turner is fearless and currently offers 300 wines from 50 wineries in 12 countries, including Hungary, Austria and Germany, as well as 18 of Australia’s top producers. But his big challenge is to convince his French customers, impressed as they are by the wines, to accept the screw caps so appreciated by his Australian suppliers. Despite blind tastings to demonstrate the beneficial effect of screw caps on freshness and aging ability, Turner still finds customers refusing allocations of sought-after wines, such as Henschke’s, simply because they are corked. “Well, some people are just going to miss a good wine,” he says, admitting that “screw caps have been a bigger challenge than non-French wine.”
But things are going in the right direction. “South World Wines is a small business, but it’s growing, thanks in large part to sommeliers returning from overseas. They have been to Melbourne, New York and London where they have been exposed to non-French wines,” he says.
Another openness factor French eyes and palates with wines from beyond the hexagon has been the popularity of the courses run by the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is certainly not limited to French wines. Over the past academic year, more than 11,000 people applied for a WSET qualification in France, double the figure from the previous year.
“The WSET classes were great for opening up French tunnel vision,” enthuses Turner. “The interest is there but there is a lot of ignorance, even among wine merchant and sum. France has fantastic tasters but when you present them with a Barossa Shiraz or a South African Pinotage, the flavors are very different from what their palates are used to. Good tasters will see beyond the potency, however. Like its suppliers, however, Turner is shifting its focus from fruit bombs to more subtle wines. “In the past, I liked wines that had more makeup [make-up] than the ones I love now.
Turner’s recent big reveal came recently from a trip to Chile courtesy of export organization ProChile. “The trip was one of my real turning points. It was amazing to see vineyards that never had pesticides – they were so vibrant and alive. No machine worked them. He returned from his trip enthused by a wine made from ancient País vines in Itata, southern Chile, and a wine somehow coaxed from granite 2,100m high in the Andes. “In the next 15 to 20 years, I have to run my business and figure out how I can really show the French people these vineyards and these regions that work with their instincts. I have to show things that have a real story to tell.
He was still thrilled to have shown a 2018 Greywacke Chardonnay from New Zealand that morning 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. Its clientele is varied and includes the great chef Guy Savoy, the Mandarin Oriental, the hipster wine bar Frenchie or the particularly open-minded Antic Wine in Lyon.
Matthew Hayes of Albion Vins Fins has been trying to sell premium Italian wines from his base in Dijon since 2011 and says: “In a nutshell, it’s hard work. I’m sure an importer has a lot more fun in London. He’s a good boy, this Gaëtan.
Jancis recommends. . . for French wine lovers
A white then a red from each country that would confuse prejudices
Flat Curly Chardonnay 2018 Macedonian channels 13.3%. 38€ Terra Wines
Henschke, Mount Edelstone Shiraz 2017 Eden Valley 14.5%. £144 RRP (to be released May 4)
Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2019 Kumeu 13%. £39 Noble Green, £41.99 Cambridge Wine Merchants, £44.95 Vinified
Kusuda Pinot Noir 2014/2018 Martinborough 13%/12.8%. 2018 is £90, 2014 is £72.99 Forest Wines
White Rally 2020 Coastal region 13%. £26.08 Lay & Wheeler, £26.95 Wine Direct, £154.07 for six Justerinis
Kershaw, Syrah Clonal Selection 2018 Elgin 13.5%. £34.99 to £39.95 various retailers
Kutch, Trout Gulch Chardonnay 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains 13%. £60Fortnum & Mason
Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Oakville, Napa Valley. £185 Hard-to-find wines, £188 Hedonism
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