Illustration by Sushrut Royyuru

Week 3: Taste the difference? Lessons in French wine.

Source: Ben Owen

Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Jurançon Sec
Most major stores, £7.50 as tested [ ]

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When it comes to selling here in the UK, wine merchants invariably fall into two schools of thought. I cannot say for certain whether this is because of an active decision by the growers themselves, or just the by-product of British palates seeking the perfect accompaniment to a Sunday roast. At any rate, the next time you are in one of Oxford’s larger supermarkets, be sure to take a closer look at the drinks aisle. You too will quickly spot the trend I have seen time and time again.

In one camp, you have wine-producing countries like Spain and New Zealand. Here are two parts of the world that export a smaller selection of grapes (including Tempranillos from La Rioja and Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs respectively). Differences are generally minor, so if the overall impression is to your taste, congratulations: you are already on to a winner. Some bottles will be better than others due to growing practises and vintages, but you can purchase any quality offering with the smugness of knowing that you will like what lies within.

And then there is the other camp, featuring wine from France.

Excluding more famous châteaux, wine in the price range that interests this column and its student readership can be incredibly inconsistent. Dozens of dissimilar grape varieties are not only grown in the same region, but sometimes even under the very indication géographique protégée / appellation d’origine protégée that adorns the labelling.

For those who know little French beyond a half-hearted « bonjour », simply think of these as fancy names for the iconic regions whose geographical boundaries are defined by law. Whereas grouping wines grown in comparable climate and landscape conditions in this way would normally encourage predictable tasting profiles, the presence of entirely unalike grapes essentially renders it a worthless pursuit. As a direct result, just because that one Ventoux, Saint Chinian, or Courbières was a cracker does not necessarily mean the others will be anywhere near as good.

It is said that variety is the spice of life. The French laissez-faire approach would accordingly come in blisteringly hot, and, at its best, allows forward-thinking vineyards to push their soil to its creative limits. Just proceed with extreme caution.

Too much information to assimilate on a brain-dead Friday afternoon? Don’t worry. With wine, there is little need to memorise technical terms and theory when you can try the stuff for yourself.

And for those wishing to extract as much pedagogical value from this column as possible, look no further than Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Jurançon Sec. The French philosophy to wine making, distilled in potable form.

On the supermarket shelf, you would be forgiven for confusing it with last week’s Gaillac Perle Evocation. Both are dry whites grown not too far away from one another in the south-westerly corner of France. Both nod towards local know-how in their choice of obscure grapes. Both pair well with most white meat, and both benefit from being served fresh. Both even come in those elegantly thin and tall bottles that typify premium whites.

However, from the moment that the cork comes off with its satisfying pop of released air, the similarities stop.

Take the wine’s colouration, the most immediate signal of the punch it packs. Rich and strong just to look at, this Jurançon Sec oozes the arrogance of a fuller-bodied grape. We are not quite on the level of a Sauternes, yet the film of cool condensation clouding the wine glass will struggle to dampen the deep, golden hues of the liquid within. Also look out for the small deposits of transparent alcohol that cling to the rims of the glass after swilling. Wine drinkers call them ‘legs’, and they indicate its relative strength.

On the nose and palate alike, this wine’s ingenious layering of flavours will please those used to offerings from California or Bordeaux. I was astonished by the heady pear, and secondary blueberry aromas evoked after a swill, which on drinking fuse with incredibly delicate white nectarine notes. A surprisingly subtle opening given what the visual cues would suggest.

And then the main body hits. Before the fruits have fully melted away, an intense, flinty minerality swells in flavour and citrus acidity so as to take the taste buds by surprise. The force is easily strong enough to cut through thick cheese fondues and paprika-laced dishes whilst remaining balanced at all times. No mean feat.

After the power of the mid phases, this Jurançon Sec still has one trick left up its sleeve for the grand finale. Whereas the natural conclusion would be an oaky aftertaste, the wine instead returns full circle as the richness gives way to a hint of white grapefruit. The elegant ending to an exciting and memorable drinking experience.

The sheer complexity means I would not instinctively reach for a glass as an aperitif, as the bottle suggests. Yet I can assure the reader that a glass or two alongside a hearty meal would never go amiss in a cosy Parisian brasserie one autumn evening, with the rain gently pattering down outside.

Side by side with its rival, I still have to admit that I would opt for a bottle of last week’s gentler Gaillac over this cryptic Jurançon Sec – but that is only my specific taste. This Sainsbury’s blend will win over many traditional white drinkers thanks to its dynamism, as well as the exceptional value for money it represents.

Two wines grown less than two hundred kilometres apart, which could well have come from different continents.

Taste the Difference indeed.

Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.