Style secrets of the French by Casilda Grigg
I have blogged about Célian Ravel d’Estienne already, the impossibly cute French wine merchant intent on luring us away from the New World. I am simply longing to be a regular customer on his all-French wine website – Your Sommelier – but tragically I am currently trop pauvre.
With this in mind, I manage to persuade him to be my own personal sommelier. We will not be exploring the delectable restaurants of Gordon Ramsay in our finest frocks, but my local rather run-down branches of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Sparks and (bus journey required to leafy Kensington & Chelsea) Waitrose.
To ensure Célian is kept on his toes I send him a list:
*No hens, cats or animals of any description on the label
*No Sauvignon Blanc
*No Beaujolais (ugh!)
What – if anything – can Célian recommend that’s French and under a tenner?
In Sainsbury’s I feel a rush of excitement at the sight of five shelves – five! – filled with French wines. Célian clutches his jacket tightly. ‘It doesn’t mean they’re any good Casilda.’
He is not impressed by the sight of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape at £13. ‘It’s too cheap,’ he sniffs. ‘These are small producers. It has to be expensive.’
Meanwhile I am trying to ignore the zebras and porcupines all around me. I pick up a £7 Côtes-du-Rhône. How about this? ‘Good for barbecues’ says Célian, who rather likes barbecues. Next he picks out an ‘Elegant Frog’ Viognier at £6 (for two). But it has a frog on it! I say. The name is awful! Non, non et non! ‘But the drawing is quite fun,’ says Célian. We agree to lift the animal fatwa, just this once. It’s good value and Viognier is an interesting grape.
We can’t get to the whites because they’re blocked off by a giant beer promotion. ‘I have to admit, I’m lost,’ says Célian. ‘I can’t find anything that interests me so I’d probably go for something funny, even if it’s disgusting.’
We agree that Mateus Rosé (£5.25) is our best bet. There’s something so cheerful about that upside down lollipop shape and, if all else fails, it would make a very useful doorstop. It has a satisfyingly squat shape too – none of that having to be slim rubbish – and I bet it’s rather delicious in the way Ferrero Rocher chocs are.
Célian and I are divided over Tesco. My local branch is the most unromantic place on the planet but I’ve snapped up quite a few bargains over the years. Random bottles are security tagged which makes them criminally alluring and often there’s a spillage of some kind by the yogurts, which is good for customer bonding.
Célian is not at all pleased to have been dragged into Tesco. He announces that he’s ‘afraid’ of French wines under £6. He gets upset at the sight of a cheap wine sold in an Armagnac-shaped bottle. ‘Stay away from that,’ he barks. ‘Unless you want to do white wine sauce.’ He’s upset too to see a Burgundy Chardonnay under £8 – ‘too cheap!’ He picks up a bottle of Muscadet, but this time I’m the one vetoing it. Muscadets are always dull. Please don’t choose it! ‘But it’s very good with oysters,’ says Célian, putting the bottle back mournfully.
How about this, I say, picking up a red wine that’s under £4, and trying to ignore the fact that I’ve spotted a kangaroo on another shelf. Célian eyes it sternly. ‘Very scary!’ he says. ‘It can only be used for the boeuf bourguignon!’
We leave the shop downcast. ‘That was very depressing,’ says Célian. But we do agree that the Chablis and the Picpoul de Pinet would be safe bets, the Pays d’Oc rosé £5.99 is pleasingly pale ‘and might be light and fresh’ and Jamie’s Italian Sicily wine (£7.99), though not remotely French, would be fun for a picnic.
Célian and I aren’t in agreement over M&S. He rates it but I’ve rarely found anything decent for under £10 in my small local branch. I always feel ripped off and try to limit M&S to emergency knicker and fruit finding missions.
He picks up a couple of ‘safe’ Mâcon Villages and a ‘safe’ Sauvignon Blanc. Who wants safe?
We head to the rosé shelf, where my spirits sink at the sight of a dolphin on one of the labels. Célian is rubbing his chin miserably. ‘The rosés are pitched quite low,’ he says. ‘What a shame. Rosés are so nice in summer.’
His conclusion is that for wines under £10 ‘it’s disappointing’.
In despair I offer to lift the £10 rule. What would you buy? Célian’s eyes brighten. It’s as if he’s found water in the desert. First there’s a £19.99 Bordeaux. ‘It’s the second wine of Château Potensac,’ says Célian. ‘It’s one to buy if you want to impress your friends.’ Next is a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape at £18.99. ‘White is unusual for Châteauneuf-du-Pape and this is a great blend of grapes.’
Verdict? My local M&S is unaffordable.
In Waitrose, the security guard buzzes around us like a menacing mosquito. Our mood plummets. Within seconds I’ve spotted a wolf, a hen and a cat and Célian is issuing stern warnings. ‘Avoid anything that says ‘Produce of France’ and doesn’t specify a region.’ I pick up a bottle and say ‘Isn’t it exciting? It’s 25% off!’ ‘They’re all 25% off,’ says Célian.
Célian heads straight for the Burgundy shelf and tells me that Louis Latour and Louis Jadot are ‘very reliable.’ Then he almost gives a little skip at the sight of a Rhône producer – Gabriel Meffre. ‘That’s a very good surprise,’ he says. He’s disappointed by the lack of wines from the Loire (I’m not) and advises me to buy wines with a Waitrose label when in doubt. ‘They’re usually as good as they can be.’
We do spot a Provence rosé but it’s the wrong colour – too dark – which Célian says means it’s probably a bit too fruity. ‘To be honest I might put an ice cube in it,’ he says. A few days later I return to buy it (Mirabeau Côtes de Provence rosé, £8.99). It’s not as pale as posh rosés but it’s still a hit with my friends.
We agree that it’s reassuring to know that Waitrose employs a phalanx of Masters of Wine to do their buying but our experience isn’t as good as we’d hoped.
If you want to drink good French wine but can’t find anything good for under a tenner your best bet is to:
a. Cultivate some rich French friends, ideally living in the Chelsea area
b. Get on the Megabus to France with a very, very large wheelie suitcase and a thick stash of Euros
c. Ask Célian to come to the rescue
So where does Célian come in?
If there’s one thing I can’t drink enough of it’s rosé from Provence. I’m mad about everything about it – the pale, pale colour, the light, delicate flavours, the sheer elegance of it. I only have to see a bottle of Provence rosé and I’m in flip-flops and a big straw hat looking out over fields of lavender.
Célian currently has a Provence offer (ends Tuesday, June 17) from Domaine Saint Andrieu on Your Sommelier, his online wine shop. The rosé is £10.35 – i.e. just a tin of economy tomatoes more than my supermarket budget – and he’s also selling magnums of rosé for £21. What could be more tempting?
There is no minimum order for wines from Your Sommelier but the £10 delivery charge is waived if you order more than £100 worth of wine. Célian delivers the wine personally within west London and uses Parcelforce or DHL for orders in the rest of the UK.